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The perfect finish December 31, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I saw that Breitbart was proposing a cap on women admitted to STEM programs.  My first thought was a very sarcastic, “Well, that shouldn’t be hard.”  I read part of the article aloud to Mike, the part about how women don’t leave STEM because of external pressure.

Mike jumped in, “What ever happened to that one student you had?  The one that the other professor said should switch majors…”

I knew which student he meant.  I had a freshman who, when she went in for advising for spring semester, was told by her advisor that she should switch majors.  The reason he did this was because she was one point too low on the math placement exam to get into calculus, putting her a semester “behind.”  She came to me, almost in tears, because she didn’t know what to do.  She felt like she needed to listen to him but really didn’t want to switch.

I wasn’t very proud of what I did next because I know it was completely unprofessional, but it had to be done: I told her to ignore him and that he was being a jerk.  I don’t like ripping on my colleagues, but this individual had just told my BEST student that she didn’t belong in engineering.

It had been a while since I had talked to her, though the last time we spoke, she told me she had a summer internship at a local engineering firm.  I performed some google-fu and found an article that mentioned her.  It turns out that she graduated earlier this year with a degree in electrical engineering.  Even better, she graduated with honors.

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about how I handled that situation, but at least I can leave this year and begin the next with the thought that I did the right thing.

Have a happy new year!

The semester is over!! December 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, geology, teaching, work.
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My first semester at the new digs is in the bag.  It was actually kinda awesome.  (Sorry…I’ve never been able to ditch the word ‘awesome’…or ‘kinda,’ either.)

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  I was as nervous as the freshmen going in, and I admit that the first couple months were kind of a shock.  It’s not that there was a lot of bad stuff going on, but being at a small school was so different.  The environment was so quiet  compared to any place I’d worked or gone to school before, and it made me feel like something was wrong.  There wasn’t, though: I just had to get used to the way things are done here and the different pacing.  As the students loosened up, as well, we all began to have a lot more fun in class.  I really enjoyed teaching because I had some very interested and attentive students, and I think most of them had a positive experience.

The service part of the job was surprisingly very enjoyable as it gave me the opportunity to get to know faculty from other departments.  I learned more about accreditation and assessment, and I participated in my first search committee.  I also helped a couple other departments with student-related activities, both for our students and as outreach to the local schools.  It kept me busy, but it wasn’t too overwhelming.  One thing I realized pretty quickly: we have a lot of female faculty here so I don’t imagine I’ll have to worry much (if ever) about being on too many committees because of a lack of representation from women.

One of the things I enjoyed most was having my own office again.  I really hate working at home, and I loved being able to keep work and other stuff more separated.  Sometimes I would drag home some grading while watching TV (which made it take three times as long), but for the most part, I did a lot of that at work.  I definitely need ideas to decorate the place, though, as all I have now in a nerd clock and a grumpy cat poster hanging up.


The hardest part of working here is the back and forth to see family.  I get a lot more done during the week so I don’t feel so bad taking some family time on the weekend, but it’s still hard not to see them every night.  Thank goodness for google chat and unlimited cell phone minutes.

I’m excited about next semester: I will be teaching university physics. When I was a TA/tutor for physics in undergrad, a lot of my lab students would come to me for help in the class.  I’ve been told a lot that I was very good at teaching it, and that’s stuck with me.  I sure hope they’re right because I remember it being one of my favorite classes in undergrad.  I also get to teach a general science class for non-majors, and I chose a geology-oriented topic for the focus.  It’ll be interesting to see how it goes teaching non-majors again.  My last experience was as a TA in grad school with students who really didn’t want to take science, so it wasn’t the most positive for me.  However, I’m starting to learn that I can’t base anything off past experiences, so I’m aiming for that class to be fun, too.

And now, I think I want a nice cup of hot cocoa…

Deep thoughts on student retention December 7, 2016

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While there are several differences between my new uni and and the previous ones where I’ve taught, I have to admit that the students have been one of the biggest differences.  One of the things that made me nervous (I admit it) is that so many of them are athletes.  Other faculty told me this was a good thing, but my past interactions with athletes have been a very mixed bag.  Some have been fantastic students while others made me want to pull my hair out.  There’s not usually much in between.  I certainly don’t mind the great ones, but knowing I could have a lot more of the not-so-great really scared me.

Here, though, almost all my students are athletes, and the experience has been completely different.  I’ve enjoyed teaching this semester far more than before, and a lot of it has to do with the students, almost all of whom are athletes.

I started wondering about a separate issue, though, and it hit me later that they may be somewhat related.  Coming out of this first semester, it’s looking like we are going to have very high retention in the program.  Even the students who have decided to change majors aren’t doing horribly.  Admittedly, it’s just one semester and they haven’t hit some of the ‘weeder’ classes yet.  I am, however, definitely not seeing the extreme negative end of student behavior that seems to plague the intro classes I taught before.  It occurred to me that the students were definitely far more on top of things than I had run into in the past, and it made me wonder if the athletics have a lot to do with it.

There are two things that I think may have contributed.  First, athletes in college are almost always athletes in high school.  They’ve already had to learn to manage their time and probably have a leg up on lots of kids who never had to put a significant commitment toward an activity while going to school.  The second contribution may have come from the athletics infrastructure: the teams generally have organized study sessions, athletes are required to check on grades throughout the semester, and if there’s a problem, you’re encouraged to let the coach know.  In essence, the athletes have a built in support structure and mentors to help them adjust to the transition into college. They have people to help them manage all of it.

I’m honestly not sure how much of this success is the students themselves or the support structure; I suspect it’s a combination of both.  I’ve also seen that the uni does a lot to support non-athletes, as well, which may skew the results a bit for the better: athletes can take advantage of non-athlete support, as well.

This has been reinforcing my notion that support beyond financial may be a huge factor in one’s ability to get through school.  Students coming out of high school are supposed to be adults, but they’ve very seldom had the ability and latitude to act like one and so have little practice.  In particular, I’ve been thinking back to many of the students I’ve had and “lost” in the past.  If they had a support structure in place like that, would they have decided to leave the major, change schools, or, in the worst scenarios, flunk out of school?  How do you set something like that up for a non-athlete?

I am not sure I have any answers, but obviously I have lots of questions.  It may shake out and our retention won’t be any better after they hit some other classes, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on a good path.  I am going to spend a lot of time watching to see what’s working, though.

Paper woes and highs November 21, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, papers, research, work.
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I really, really hate grading papers.  I’m not sure why I assign them, except that I hope there will be a decent amount of reflection and introspection on the part of the students as they’re writing them.  However, I would rather grade problem sets or even lab reports than papers.

Part of the problem is that I’m looking for content and it’s not always in the same place as you go from paper to paper.  In problems and lab reports there’s generally a set structure.  For papers…it’s not entirely clear.

The other part of the problem is that they just aren’t engaging for me, so I end up falling asleep reading them.  I’m one of those people who has a hard time sitting down to read a book, even for fun, unless it’s intensely compelling.  I will, however, be fine listening to books on tape (or CD or iPhone or whatever they are now).  I thank this means I need to hire a really good voice actor who can read them to me. At the very least, it would be slightly more engaging.  But then I would still have to assign a grade.  :p

On the up side of papers, some of mine are finally getting cited.  The good ones, I mean.  I have watched over the past three years as one of my least favorite papers on which I’m a co-author steadily gained and gained citations.  I couldn’t figure out why except that it’s in a “hot” area.  Now two of my papers are starting to pick up citations (and my h-index is starting to creep up).  One of the papers is a good theory paper which was accepted to a rather selective conference while the other was more experimental in an area I’d like to keep doing research in (at least the theory aspect of it…don’t have the equipment to do experimental work now).  I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that they pass up the crappy paper in a couple years.  If either one does, it’ll be a reason to make something especially delicious and celebrate.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

The first week September 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, work.
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I finished my first week teaching in my new institution, and I have to say it was very strange.

I started college at a small university, but it had twice as many graduate students as undergrads, and it was in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  While the campus wasn’t huge, it was relatively busy.  I finished my undergrad at a mid-size state school, but the department I was in was tiny.  I had very small upper-level classes but most of my generals were in very large classes, one even having about 500 students. For my MS, I switched to one of the largest departments, which was a jolt.  While my classes weren’t huge (15-20 per class in the grad program), there were a lot of people around and pace and flavor of the department was far less intimate.  There were people in the building nearly 24 hours. For the PhD, I was in a very large state university in a big city but in a small department.  Even so, my classes typically had at least 20 people in them.  At all of these places, it seemed like, at least during the school year, the pace was hectic and there were a lot of people always around.  I always felt like I was busy.

Now I’m in a new department (I’m one of two faculty) in a small liberal arts college in a small town.  The feel is completely different.  The classes are smaller, and the students always seem to be off at class.  The campus quad is usually quiet, unlike the last place (the really big university in the middle of city).  At the big school, people would eat lunch while listening to the Christian hippy-looking fellow standing on a ladder in front of the library, preaching fire and brimstone or playing inspirational music and singing slightly out of tune.  Other students would be playing frisbee or football.  Now I mostly see people walking from one building to the other (usually on the sidewalks!), with the occasional line coming out of the student center because everyone decided to grab lunch at the same time.

While I’m kind of surprised by the quietness, I am also enjoying the lack of everything feeling so hectic.  My colleagues generally seem to be laid back, the students are mostly pleasant and polite.  Everyone is getting things done, but no one seems to be running around all frantic and the campus doesn’t feel like a beehive.

Of course, it’s early in the semester; I’ll have to revisit this train of thought in December.

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

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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.

You might be an engineer if… April 30, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, research, science.
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I know engineers have quirky personalities.  There are these things that most people take for granted that drives other people nuts…and vice versa.  The engineer will spend hours fixing something so it works just perfectly while others don’t care as long as it’s functional.

I realized lately that one of my big pet peeves has been programming languages.  Okay…that’s not just lately.  But still.  It really amazes me how you can do something so simply in one language but it’ll take you days to figure it out in another language.  I’ve been beating my head against this a lot lately.  While I learned programming a long time ago, as I went through my education, I learned other languages that had been optimized for working with certain types of problems.

So what am I dealing with now?  Languages that were among some of the first that I learned, and their offspring.

I have decided that I will be switching to do some of my work in another language, maybe even learning a new one that supposedly has a low learning curve.  On the other hand, I have to admit that my frustration certainly helps me to recognize the brilliance of the people who did all of their work in these languages.  The engineer in me can’t help but think the languages are clunky and inefficient.  I can’t be completely wrong, though: if they weren’t no one would’ve bothered to come up with new ones.

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.

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