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Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching.
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I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Post-doc season June 17, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research.
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It appears to be that time of year again.  My mailbox has been filling with CVs from people who want me to give them a post-doc.  Some of them are actually in electromagnetics, so it makes sense why they would contact me.  (Some…but not most.)

This year, however, I was contemplating handling it a bit differently than previous years.  Given I’m not currently employed, I can’t really offer them a post-doc.  (I also couldn’t when I was employed, either, but humor me.)  This year, therefore, I have contemplated writing them back to say I’m in the same boat they are and that they should let me know if they come across anything open.

I don’t imagine I’d hear back from them.

I also can’t imagine myself sending that particular email, either.  But it is funny to contemplate their possible reaction.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.


Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Annoying parenting advice May 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, societal commentary, younger son.
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A couple days ago, for some odd reason, I came across a LOT of parenting advice online.  The funny thing was, so much of it was contradictory.  Half of it was, “pay attention to your kids and have rules and structure,” and the other half was, “Let your kids make mistakes and learn from them.”

I have to laugh because I think the approach you use as a parent is probably somewhere between these two extremes…or maybe sometimes one extreme is appropriate and, at other times, you want to swing to the other extreme.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ style of parenting: our parenting has to be as unique as our kids and, as the adult, we need to be the ones who adapt to the situation.

Let’s take an example: my younger son was a climber.  Within about a week of learning to walk, he was climbing.  At 13 months, the kid could kick my ass at climbing anything, due in part to the fact that he hadn’t developed a healthy fear of heights, and I have an overdeveloped one.  I’m seriously in awe of his climbing skills, especially now that he’s gotten into a bit of rock climbing.  How much climbing I let him do when he was younger depended on where he was doing it.  If he was climbing on my exercise bike to sit down, I didn’t worry about it.  However, sometimes he liked to stand up and try climbing the handle bars.  In that situation, I would hover so that I could catch him if he fell, and if he got too high and/or unstable, I’d take him off and say he’d gone past his limit.  If he was climbing a very low rock wall at the local shopping mall with big pads underneath to cushion any falls, I’d sit back and do some reading.  If he was climbing the 8-foot wall and the playground surrounded by pea gravel, you better believe I was standing there so that I could catch him if he did lose his grip (which never happened, though there was once a bad incident with a trampoline).

Another thing I learned was to try to mute my own reactions to situations and watch the kids reactions when they got hurt.  I basically would ask if they were okay and then let them tell me how they felt about it.  Sometimes they would get up and dust themselves off while other times they would grab on to me and start sobbing.  If they were crying, I let them cry.  Maybe they weren’t physically hurt, but they will cry if they get very scared as a reaction to something bad happening, just like most adults do.  It’s perfectly okay for a kid to cry and ask a parent for reassurance in that situation: emotional hurts are just as real as physical ones.  Of course, you also need to get them to learn to talk, even if they are upset, and explain what’s wrong.  (If the event was particularly stressful, after things were done, I would need to take break and have a good cry myself just to get it out of my system.  Sometimes parents do it, too.)

I don’t believe in letting kids do things completely independently so that they can “learn from their mistakes.”  Sometimes kids DON’T learn from their mistakes, or the path they choose ends up resulting in just as bad an outcome.  I do think it’s reasonable to let them fail, though, and then let them know that if they’d like some ideas on how to handle it better, you’re always there for advice.  People in general are good at realizing they’ve made a mistake but they’re not always so good at figuring how to do better next time, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect kids to figure it out without a little guidance from people with a bit more life experience.  (Of course, they have to be open to hearing about that experience.)

The gist of this is that you have to do what works for you and your kid and there’s no “right way” to parent.  One tactic that works one time may not work another, and you’ve got to learn how much space to give your kids.  It’s a balancing act that takes practice, and you’re going to make mistakes yourself.  Any article that tells you that they’ve discovered the best way to deal with their kids is taking all the nuance out of parenting.

Older son, dream interpreter… April 28, 2016

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The older kid has strange dreams which he tells me about often.  I, on the other hand, usually don’t get enough sleep to remember my dreams, but I did this morning and decided to tell him about it.  Mostly, I was curious if it would weird him out.

In my dream, Jon Snow (from Game of Thrones) was walking around my yard with a metal detector.  I thought it was strange but he wasn’t hurting anyone, so I went to bed without calling the police.  However, I woke up the next morning and discovered he’d tried to break into the house.  I could tell this because the door knob, which was some sort of strange Buddha statue thing, had been chipped at with a chisel.

I told the older son that I was sure there was some deep inner meaning, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  Maybe my recent spate of bird watching had gone from watching grackles hunting for food in the yard to a ‘crow’ looking for treasure?

“I know,” he replied. “Watching too much Game of Thrones will chip away at your inner peace.”

I’m going to go with that.  Maybe it’s a good thing I have to wait a week between episodes.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.


Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

Conversations with the kid February 25, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science, Uncategorized, younger son.
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Younger son: “I don’t care if Tesla was smarter than you, I still love you.”

Me: “But he was only just a bit smarter, right?”

Younger son: “Nope.  He was a lot smarter.  You just do physics.”

Me: “I also do electrical engineering.”

Younger son: “Oh.”  *wanders off to kitchen*

Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid.

Why should I vote for Bernie? February 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in Politics.
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I don’t too often veer into overtly political topics, but I keep getting this question and this seems as good as any place to discuss my views openly.  (If you’re a republican or non-American and couldn’t figure it out from the title, this post will most likely not be of interest to you.)  I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter (having been a fan of his since his early days in congress) and I’ve been asked why I would vote for him rather than Clinton.

Don’t you want the US to finally have a female president?

Yes, I do.  But in this case, principles are a bit more important than a uterus.

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to make one thing expressly clear:  I think both of them are immensely qualified. They both vote similarly 90% of the time.  I don’t think either of them would be a bad president, but that’s not the issue in securing the nomination.  The question is, in my mind, which one would be a better president?

In my mind, the biggest difference is their definitions of success.  Bernie wants to be a public servant, and Clinton wants to be elected.  I’m not saying it’s bad to want to be elected, but I don’t think that should be the primary driver for a public servant. Bernie is extremely constant in his views and that hasn’t changed over the tenure of his time in congress unless his constituents have requested something to change.  Clinton has made a lot of very good career moves, but I really think they’ve been a lot more about securing her position than about the people she serves.

For instance, it has always bothered me that she went to New York to become a senator rather than back to Arkansas.  It was no doubt a smart move, but it wasn’t a very principled one.

Another example is the Trans Pacific Partnership (which I am very disappointed that Obama has signed).  This was something that Clinton had been pushing for when she was in congress.  Bernie has been against it since day one.  However, with it becoming clear that Bernie was going to be her main competitor (and to some extent, O’Malley), she waffled for a while and then finally came out against it.  It isn’t just a shift: it’s a complete 180 from her previous position.  It’s become clear that Clinton has been making a swing to the left to get primary voters.  Guess what she’ll do for the general election to pick up undecideds from the republican voters: shift to the right.

I would like to know what I’m voting for, for a change.  And I suspect that Bernie isn’t going to change his views just to pick up voters.  He doesn’t need to because it’s pretty clear he has most voters’ interests as his primary concern, unlike most politicians who are encumbered by the lobbyists.

A pretty common critique is that Bernie is unrealistic and because he is so principled, he won’t be able to get anything done while Clinton is claiming that she’s “a progressive that gets things done.”  I can’t vouch for the Clinton claim (though I don’t personally agree with it), but I can say that the criticism of Bernie is completely uncalled for.  All you have to do is look at the fact that he’s a democratic candidate.  If he was so principled as to not accomplish anything, he would’ve run as an independent and you probably wouldn’t have any idea who he was unless you belong to that particular group of fringe voters and politicos.  His existence as a democratic candidate upends that argument.

The final consideration is what you’re hoping to get out of a democratic nominee should s/he become president.  The political winds, in congress at least, are blowing to the right.  Obama certainly hasn’t accomplished what he wanted.  I don’t suspect that would change for either Bernie or Clinton.  In fact, I actually think Clinton will be at a disadvantage relative to Bernie on this front.  Clinton is…well…a Clinton.  All of the vitriol that the right had for Bill Clinton is going to be aimed front and center at his wife.  Bernie has an advantage in that he has learned over a few decades how to deal with congress.  He also has a strong set of principles.  Conservatives typically appreciate that more than compromise, something that the left tends to underestimate.

By having a strong set of principles that, to some extent, appeal to the right (particularly veterans) as well as an ability to work with congress, Bernie is set up to be able to get at least some legislation through.  Clinton could do the same but her approach will be to move to the right in order to do so.  This means that the things we could see coming from a Clinton administration will be very much in line with what has been coming from the Obama administration.  While that’s better than what would happen should a republican presidency take place, I think Bernie could actually shift the center just a bit farther away from corporate interests.


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