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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.

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.

World’s Worst Officemate November 23, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, homeschooling, research, science, younger son.
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I have been working at home, trying to finish up this PhD thing once and for all.  Earlier this year, the place I worked was shut down and so I figured that if I had any desire to stay in academia (which I do), the PhD thing is kind of a necessary evil.

Because of the job situation, however, I also ended up with a new officemate: my younger son.  It was actually a combination of factors: private school is expensive, middle school is a cesspool of derision and contempt (and therefore not the best place to develop social skills), and, finally, the younger son really wanted to take high school biology and no one would let him.  Except me, being the overindulgent parent I am.

I have to admit that he’s been a bit easier to deal with than his older sibling.  It’s amazing how much easier this education thing is when you’re not dealing with ADHD.  The younger son is amazingly self-sufficient and does a good job of keeping a schedule.

I have, however, discovered one major flaw in this plan.  I had no idea how much middle schoolers talked.  Mostly, he gets excited about the things he’s learning in his class, which really tickles me.  However, he wants to share everything with me.  Every. Thing.  I have learned more about genes and cell processes and reproduction in the past two months than I probably did during my own high school biology class.  I have learned about social and mental and physical health.  I am beginning to speak Spanish with a level of proficiency that has not been present since my teens.  And mostly, I see him being happy and excited about learning again.

Unfortunately, he’s not quite so receptive when I begin to talk about coding and arrays and debugging and compiler issues and, especially, writing.  I have begun, as of late, to tell him that while I’m glad he’s learning, I really need him to let me focus on my work, too.  Someday, if he has to share an office with someone, this will be good real life practice for not making them insane.  At least he’s not asking to go out every ten minutes, like the dogs.

Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?


A reason to celebrate! July 9, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, pets, research, work.

This is a pretty special week: Teradog’s Gotcha Day was on Tuesday.  Three years ago, we welcomed him into our family, thinking it was only going to be temporary.  The truth is, we’re foster failures.  Despite Mike’s insistence that he was just staying for a couple days, we ended up staying for a month before Mike asked about whether the rescue group had found him a new home.  I said they hadn’t been looking but I could contact them, if he wanted me to.  By that point, he didn’t want me to because that giant ball of fluff and love had steadfastly attached himself to Mike’s hip.

We weren’t sure how long he would be around, which was the really scary part.  The vet couldn’t figure out how old he was (his teeth were in bad shape) and said he could be anywhere from four to ten years old, his teeth indicating the high end of that range.  We took the median, seven, which is getting old for a Newfoundland.  He was also in very bad health.  However, he’s doing very well now (except for a bit of arthritis) and is happy, healthy, and generally content.  We’re hoping he will be around for a while longer.

Happy Newfie!

Happy Newfie!

Today is another anniversary: I will have been writing at this blog for five years.  While that’s generally a happy thing, you may have noticed that things have been rather quiet the past couple months.  That’s because, after five years and not quite a month at my job, the research center I’ve been working for has turned into a support lab and all the research staff have either been terminated or will be let go as soon as funds on their respective projects are gone.  Because of this, there hasn’t been much to talk about.  I’m spending a lot of time in front of the computer, working on my thesis, hanging out with my critters.  While it lends itself to a lot of cute puppy and kitty pics (and often kitty AND puppy pics, probably snuggling), there hasn’t been a whole lot of narrative material there unless you’d like me to get into the specifics of drooling and sleeping patterns of Newfoundlands.  The only thing I am sure I could do on a fairly regular basis is complain about how certain programs are a pain to use, but I’ve already done that (probably ad nauseum).


All of this boils down to today being a good day to celebrate changes.  Change is generally a stressful thing, but it’s all in what you make of it.  And there’s certainly worse things to do than to hang around with domesticated bears.

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.

Cale Anger, 1985-2015 February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Goals: The 2015 FCIWYPSC edition January 1, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, religion, research, running, work, writing.
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I’m not doing resolutions and haven’t done them for a while.  Goals, however, are another story, particularly when they’re of the quantifiable type.  While some of these are large goals (like with running), I break them down to weekly and daily goals, as well.

Writing this out is helpful because not only does it provide me with some accountability, it helped me realize I was bogging myself down with too much.  I had to cut a few items.

These are the things I think I can manage with some consistency:

  • Career/Work: Publish at least one paper and attend at least one conference.
  • Career/Dissertation: Set a minimum amount of time to work on my thesis each week, though the weekly total will vary if there’s a holiday involved.  (I do some version of this, but I think I need to make my planning a bit more specific.) Also, attend one conference this year.
  • Family time: Family play day once per month.
  • Marriage: Keep up with the weekly date with the spousal unit.
  • Self-care/Religious: Center down (or if you prefer, meditate or pray) for at least ten minutes a day, not necessarily all at once.
  • Self-care/Sleep: Stick to a consistent (and early) bed-time at least 4 days per week.
  • Self-care/Physical activity: Run or walk 500 miles by the end of October.  I did about 200 outdoor miles this year but didn’t keep track of treadmill time at all, so I think this is doable, especially in light of my next goal.  I’ve also learned I like to ramp down the activity around the holidays (too much to do), so that amounts to about 11.5 miles per week.
  • Fun goal: Do half-marathons in two new states this year.  Two down, 48 to go. I’m hoping to cross Wisconsin and Michigan off the list this year.  (And I’ve already registered for one of them.)
  • Misc/Blog: Post on the blog at least twice per week.  (I do that on average, but sometimes there are long gaps in between.)
  • Misc/Email: I will keep my main mailbox below 3000 messages.  That may sound horrible, but this is 1/5 of what it was just last week.  I need to either delete those messages, read them, or unsubscribe from all the spam I’m getting…probably mostly the latter.  Lots of unread email makes me overwhelmed.

So do you have any goals for the year?

The #ShirtStorm and Its Double Standard November 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, research, science.
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I was a bit distracted and didn’t notice Matt Taylor’s shirt until today.  Now that I have seen it and thought about it, I’d like to say that I think the people who are upset are wrong.  Here’s why:

  • How many women get picked on because of the clothes they wear or how they do their hair?  If you missed it, this happens all the time while men get a free pass.  We usually say that making commentary on women’s attire is a crappy thing to do…so how come we’re doing it to a guy?  Treating a guy the way a woman normally is treated doesn’t make it okay…it means we shouldn’t be doing it to anyone!  I seriously would love to wear a similarly styled shirt with Wonder Woman on it…but I know I shouldn’t because I would be judged very harshly.  Why can’t we make it okay for everyone?
  • Most people I know believe that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without being sexualized.  How many of those same people don’t like the shirt because the drawings are revealing?  Is a woman’s body supposed to be sexualized or not?  (That being said, anyone who thinks it was okay for him to wear that shirt, particularly if they’re defending it as “nerd culture” but expect women to dress or not dress certain ways is just as bad as the other side.)
  • If a woman should be allowed to wear what she wants without having conclusions drawn about her, why is it okay to draw conclusions that the guy wearing that shirt is inherently misogynist?
  • Why should scientists be held to a different standard of dress?  I keep seeing this business about how scientists ought to dress more professionally.  Says who?  Scientists don’t need dress codes any more than high school students do.  Scientists already have an image problem: people think of us as stuffy people who always wear lab coats.  I’m glad someone was excited and NOT being boring.  Science is cool stuff!

I do realize that much of the upset may be the power dynamic in STEM fields: there are far more men than women, and women are so very often not taken seriously.  There is also the potential that something like this could be used to make women feel uncomfortable.  (I don’t get the sense that this was the case, however, but I see the potential for it going wrong.)  Ideally, one of his colleagues might have been kind enough to point out that some people may take the shirt the wrong way.  As that didn’t happen, however, I don’t think the answer is to apply a set of standards to men when we are already complaining that they are unfair to women.  Likewise, I hope that all the folks defending him aren’t ever going to turn around and accuse a woman of dressing inappropriately.

Personally Matt, I wasn’t crazy about the shirt.  Like I said, I prefer Wonder Woman.


The internet makes me impatient November 17, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, research.
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I really, really needed to get ahold of a book.  I looked at all three libraries I have access to.  One has a hard copy, but it’s a couple hours away so getting it would be tough (to say the least).  The second library said it was available online, but apparently the institutional subscription doesn’t cover that book.  The price of buying it is $15/chapter.  The other library had no idea what I was talking about.

I went onto Amazon to check if a digital copy was there.  It’s not.  It’s an older book and so there isn’t a kindle version.

I finally gave up and bought a copy of the book, but it won’t be here until Wednesday.

Part of me is very annoyed I have to wait that long for a book.  Another part of me remembers only 10 or 15 years ago when I would have to order journal articles through interlibrary loan and they sometimes took a couple weeks to show up.  I would be waiting for a day or two, but then I’d end up working on something else that I found distracting.  It kept me going for a while, but then I would realize I was stuck without the paper, at which point I’d start getting irritated again.

I think I’m getting more impatient as I get older, though.  As you can see from the graph below, it’s a straight shot upward.



This scares me because my kids are already used to the situation where books are instantly available or they only have two wait a day or two to receive something.  What are they going to be like as adults?!

Or worse yet…what will I be like in another 15 years?

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