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.
Spacing out May 5, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, science.
Tags: kennedy space center, pictures, space, space shuttle
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Last week, having never been to Florida, I had one day to go exploring. While Universal Studios was awfully tempting, I chose another location: Kennedy Space Center. Rather than bore you with explanations, I’ll give you the photo tour. (My husband graciously consented to be the model for several of these pictures…)
The entrance (if you click on the picture, the full size one will come up and you can read the quote):
After passing through the visitor center entrance, the first thing you see is a bunch of rockets:
And a few capsules (which, of course, are fun to crawl into):
They are currently building the final home for the shuttle Atlantis, which will be on display at about the end of June. I was disappointed it wasn’t ready yet.
Then we hopped the bus and drove past the vehicle assembly building:
And visited the Apollo/Saturn V center:
At the center, they start you by sitting through a simulated launch of one of the missions. There are tons of things on display that relate to the Apollo missions, such as newspapers, space suits, and even the moon rover they practiced on. There’s also a moon rock that you can touch. (I was disappointed that it was polished.) We unfortunately only had about 5 hours, which didn’t feel like nearly enough, but we definitely had a good time.
I almost speak Greek April 13, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, humor, science.
Tags: accuracy, greek, kappa, precision
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I was working on my thesis, trying to do some debugging, when I discovered a discrepancy between two pieces of code. Mike was standing nearby, and when I made that noise one makes when they discover something is afoot, he asked what was up.
“There’s a difference between kappa in these two programs.”
Of course, I blanked at that particular moment and couldn’t dredge up the meaning from the recesses of my memory.
“Umm….it’s that little K thingy.”
I think that’s the accurate but not precise answer…
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.
Spoiled September 25, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, science.
Tags: dual career couples, employment, two-body problem
I had a discussion the other day with someone about dual-career couples in academia. Specifically, I was talking about a couple that had been hired, only it had become apparent after some time that the lagging spouse was actually a better researcher than the leading spouse. At some point, the person I was talking to interjected to tell me that having to hire both members of a couple was essentially part of the whole entitlement mindset that is a problem in this country.
I was rather floored. I knew I’d seen comments like this online, but I was very surprised to hear it from someone in person. I was especially surprised that they seemed unaware of how this affects women disproportionately to men. They also seemed to be unaware that this was being used as a strategy at many places to attract better researchers.
But then, that doesn’t seem to matter. Diversity is apparently not a goal for everyone. I hate being in situations where I am reminded of this, but it sure explains a lot when people are willing to come out and be so blatant in their commentary.
The art of citations August 15, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, science.
Tags: art, citations, papers, research
I had an art class in Governor’s school that really reminds me of how I feel when people look at my research. Governor’s school, in North Dakota, is a six week program where you get to be immersed in a particular area of interest. Usually this involves some in depth, hands-on experience. I ended up spending six weeks doing research in a biology lab. I came out of the experience knowing I loved research but hated biology, and that ultimately got me interested in a career in science.
Aside from all that, we had enrichment activities in the evenings. My enrichment class was drawing. I can’t remember the specific name of the project, but basically we were supposed to draw part of another image. I chose to draw the Madonna’s face from Rafael’s Madonna de Foligno. I was at a place where I didn’t have access to any good art supplies, so I just did the drawing on lined paper. After I’d finished it up, I was terribly disappointed I’d not had any real drawing paper as it was one of the nicest drawings I’ve ever made. I felt like the lines on the notebook paper really disrupted a beautiful image.
My art teacher was a college student, and even though the term hipster hadn’t yet been coined, that’s what immediately pops to mind when I think about him. Rather than being impressed with my uber-awesome drawing skills, he thought the neatest thing about the drawing was that it was on lined paper. I guess he thought it made it look modern or something like that. I was livid. I’d worked so hard to get the image right, and he only cared about how the paper made it look cool (which it didn’t).
This is how I feel when I get citations.
I really like Google Scholar’s profile option. That being said, I’m almost always let down when I get one. I don’t mean to be picky, but I’ve noticed that certain papers get a lot more citations than others. The problem I have with this is that these aren’t my favorite papers: I think I have other papers that are better quality research.
What seems to happen is that one paper will be cited by someone, and once it’s cited, others will start using it as a reference. Some of this obviously has to do with areas where research is more active, which is understandable. I’m sure some of the papers are cited more simply because there’s more related literature coming out. I have to admit, though, that it’s frustrating when a paper you aren’t all that fond of has far more references than the one you really poured yourself into.
It’s kind of like someone admiring your drawing because it’s on lined paper.
Tags: brain rules, education, family, higher education, learning, learning disabilities, older son, online learning, schedules, science education, teaching, technology, UDL, universal design for learning, universities, younger son
I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology. Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).
I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online. First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model. This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle). The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems. Both my sons have used the former method to learn math. One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks. On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.
If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others. Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing. The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else. Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.
The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model. It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer. Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems. If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic. (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.) In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it. When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class. The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers. Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too? That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students. Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.
In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:
I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.
Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students. So why aren’t we using it more? I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much? Turns out, there’s an answer. In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:
Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.
I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago. Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.
I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education. I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium. Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)
One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn. They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn. I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying. (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.) I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge. I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard. Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course. (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)
Massimo also says:
I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?
No, I don’t think so. There are two reasons why I think this. First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning. Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom. Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture. Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images. Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all. Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention. (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)
Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education. I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college. I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s. How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances? There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree. In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago. He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.
Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things. So why do I think it could work for everyone? I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well. Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way. Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general. (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one. Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless. I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)
So what does this have to do with online learning? I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder. He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary. We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading. As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks. He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination. I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation. So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?
Take it a step further. If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home? Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m. (And yes, people do function on different clocks.) Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?
I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people. Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning. Some people don’t. The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.
I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process. Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment. The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own. That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it. In reality, students are still learning on their own. The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance. Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.
I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time. If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.
My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available. I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students. The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.