status

Feb. 18th, 2013 05:29 pm
clevermynnie: (and then?)
One of my biggest behavioral pet peeves is when people use criticism as a way to try to gain status. The implication is that if someone shows you something—a place, a work of art, an idea—and you can tear it down, you must understand it better than the person who showed it to you to be able to pick it apart. There’s a respectful way to disagree with another person’s assessment or value system, to present your own reasons while showing an understanding of theirs, but then there are ways of criticizing that are all about showing who has the upper hand. I think I am exposed to this especially in science, where so much of your standing in the community is about not just the validity of your ideas, but also your quickness in either grasping or poking holes in new ideas that you’re exposed to. And while I do appreciate spirited discussion and interplay about interesting things, I kind of resent when conversations start to feel like a battle that one person is intent on winning. To me it’s more enjoyable as well as more productive to take a collaborative approach to the whole thing.

So, in my improv class we had a few exercises about status, discussing how to portray status differences in a scene and what sort of status combinations or changes can be funny and why. We had to do scenes with assigned status levels, and in one scene I was supposed to have the highest status. I really shocked myself by defaulting to criticism to show that I had high status! The class talked about the scene afterward, and described my behaviour as very aloof and impossible to please, but successfully high-status. It made me physically uncomfortable to act that way, and I felt kind of horrible afterward hearing people describe how I'd acted (in a scene!). But that’s what I went for as the most obvious way to demonstrate status. Some of the people after me who were highest status in their scenes were nicer about it, delegating and being gracious while being obviously dominant, and we also talked about how a person can confer high status onto others. It also made me think about softer forms of power, the sort that don’t involve constantly asserting that you are the one in charge.

The day after we did these status exercises, I went with a friend to eat lunch in the college’s faculty dining room. I thought it would be really cool to see, but then as it turned out a lot of the scene was older white male faculty members all trying to assert status. Wow. I signed up for this improv class with a friend and she had warned me that I would be seeing improv everywhere afterward, but yes, so much of what we do is about status! Or to be more precise, so much of what people do that I dislike is about status.

And in science, the criticism as status thing really bothers me in part because I feel it quashes a lot of creative scientific endeavors. Sure, it can be quick and easy to find fault. But that’s also the safest and most conservative route, which ignores a lot of clever and interesting stuff. I think scientists also tend strongly to dismiss things that are non-quantifiable as unimportant, which is how you end up with so many poorly communicated papers and talks, and also is a big part of why scientists are quick to trash science communication and outreach. If you exert status by fact-checking and criticism, why bother with anything else? Obviously, I think this is a very limiting way to approach things and total bullshit, but it has a lot of traction.

But if you are actually interested in contributing to something worthwhile, this is not the way to do criticism. I love to criticize in the sense that I love analysing things, trying to see them as a whole whole from all angles, trying to get where they work and where they don’t. Which means that when I give feedback, I like to emphasize the stuff that seems to work along with the trouble spots I have found. It’s very rare that I find a theory, a piece, an idea that I disagree with every part of, so this balanced approach to criticism is the most natural one for me. But I will say, when I realize that someone else is viewing discussion as a competition, I can have a hard time not trying to win. Which is to say, I sometimes buy into the status values that other people put on things, even though I don’t really want to, because of my own ego. I’m hoping to get better at this, in science and in other contexts. In improv as in life.

work

Jan. 14th, 2013 12:05 pm
clevermynnie: (see us waving)
So I found out that a talk I proposed got accepted for the spring meeting of the Materials Research Society in San Francisco, which is pretty great. My fellowship includes a bit of travel money, and at least one grad school friend will be there, plus one of the grad students I work with here is going too. In a weird twist, Ben is going to a conference the week before in the exact same conference center, so we will overlap and have a weekend in the Bay Area together, just like the old days. I haven't been out there in four years, but it will be great to see people and eat at the Cheeseboard.

More generally my work is going alright, though at the moment a lot of my projects are in a 'wait for X' stage, which feels tedious when it all happens at once. I want to DO things, not hassle people to move purchasing or installation or whatever forward on track. Maybe in these situations I should be spending my spare time in the lab futzing around instead of reading papers, because otherwise I just get restless.

I am coming up on one year in this job. It doesn't seem like it's been that long, or that our trip back to Philly in late February will mark a year and a half since we moved away! But on the other hand, I've done a lot in this lab so I suppose it makes sense that it's already been a year. I do feel like I am sorting out what I really want to do in science, and that feels pretty good.
clevermynnie: (smile)
There's an awesome and hilarious hashtag on twitter right now, #overlyhonestmethods, which is kind of a crowdsourced version of PhD comics' methodology translator explaining how science actually gets done. Some select tweets are here and here, but the whole thing enhances my current feeling of wishing I had a lab assistant.
clevermynnie: (Default)
The science museum directly below my workplace is doing an exhibition on material science, which opens next week, and I'm excited about it because I've been involved in a few ways.

I got to see a bit of the planning process, which resulted in my being tapped to be in a video about my research. So we filmed that earlier this week... it was kind of weird, because what you do is answer questions from someone sitting just beside the camera, whose voice will be totally edited out. You have to restate the questions asked, and then try to respond fluidly and naturally, hoping that you don't accidentally say anything wrong! Kind of nerve-wracking. But if I want people to see more women doing science, putting myself out there as a scientist is part of that. Presumably it gets easier to do, and it does help to practice by writing about the same ideas, even if writing is not the same as speaking.

I'll also have an image on display in the exhibition, one that I took using a special technique on the scanning electron microscope here. I think it's really cool-looking though I'm not sure about the resolution when it's enlarged. But I'm looking forward to seeing it! I am supposed to go to the press launch and the launch party (which I would probably have gone to anyway). Hopefully the exhibition comes together well, and hopefully I can get some people to go see it!
clevermynnie: (Default)
The science museum directly below my workplace is doing an exhibition on material science, which opens next week, and I'm excited about it because I've been involved in a few ways.

I got to see a bit of the planning process, which resulted in my being tapped to be in a video about my research. So we filmed that earlier this week... it was kind of weird, because what you do is answer questions from someone sitting just beside the camera, whose voice will be totally edited out. You have to restate the questions asked, and then try to respond fluidly and naturally, hoping that you don't accidentally say anything wrong! Kind of nerve-wracking. But if I want people to see more women doing science, putting myself out there as a scientist is part of that. Presumably it gets easier to do, and it does help to practice by writing about the same ideas, even if writing is not the same as speaking.

I'll also have an image on display in the exhibition, one that I took using a special technique on the scanning electron microscope here. I think it's really cool-looking though I'm not sure about the resolution when it's enlarged. But I'm looking forward to seeing it! I am supposed to go to the press launch and the launch party (which I would probably have gone to anyway). Hopefully the exhibition comes together well, and hopefully I can get some people to go see it!
clevermynnie: (and then?)
"The findings open up the possibility of creating an unconventional computing model where the zeros and 1s are represented by the absence or presence of a swarm of crabs."

(from here)
clevermynnie: (and then?)
I've started the process of becoming a leader in the scout troop I mentioned a while back, which means getting vetted by the Garda in order to be trusted with minors. This apparently takes awhile, and before it goes through I can't go on any activities like hikes with the kids. But I can attend meetings, and help run activities, and suggest activities.

I'm pretty into the general outdoorsy stuff one learns to do in scouts, like learning about ropes and camping and how to pack a frame pack and such. But I'm also the only (soon-to-be) leader in my troop with a science background, and I have been trying to think up science activities that the kids might enjoy. I could lecture to them but that's not really the point, is it? When I was a scout we did things like make model rockets and build solar cookers... I am trying to think of other activities that could be done indoors or in a small park to learn about science. We could get some of those flimsy spectrographs to look at light sources, or prisms and lenses, or a cheap microscope to look at stuff that is cool when magnified. I think there is money to buy chemistry sets or something like that... I honestly don't know much about chemistry sets, but I think I had one in the closet as a kid. It would also be fun to build some basic circuits and possibly robots. Hmmm.

Do any of you have suggestions for science activities to do outside a classroom?
clevermynnie: (Default)
It's kind of amazing to compare my experience with the first few weeks of this job to the first few weeks of my grad or undergrad research. I have done a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, editing and discussion for the grant proposal my boss just submitted, and started getting trained on a fair bit of equipment I need. But it feels like the lead time I need to understand something is so much shorter than it was before. Postdocs are supposed to hit the ground running, at least that is what you hear, and the idea made me nervous but now I am seeing that it isn't so hard to do.

Part of it is definitely that while I shifted materials and projects somewhat, I am still in the same area of nanoscience that I was in before. And I did enough broad journal reading in grad school that I had grounding to move in the direction I did, plus the physics of what I am studying now is very related to the physics of what I did in grad school. And it helps in terms of experiments that I have a lot of experience with experimental techniques that I will be using, so that I recognize software and understand principles. It doesn't feel intimidating even though I am still learning new things, making mistakes, trying things out.

I wish I could convey this to my friends who are still in grad school in a way that sounds plausible. You know how sometimes you talk with someone who seems insanely competent and understands everything? There is a path from being a grad student to being that person, and you are probably already on it, making forward progress. Even if it doesn't feel that way (especially then).
clevermynnie: (mask)
After a long trip here on Wednesday, I eventually made it to my room at the hotel in San Jose. The first four days have been in San Jose, at a nanoscience center, and tomorrow we are going to a beach resort for the next week of talks and activities. All the students have roommates for hotel rooms, and I completely lucked out with my roommate: she is Romanian-American, very nice, and very skilled at organizing activities for our free moments. I went to a great dinner the first evening with her and several other students, at a nearby Spanish restaurant. I had arroz negro, we shared a very good bottle of wine, and we had so much great conversation that my stress from traveling melted away.

To first go through the workshop events, we have had several talks from young faculty, a demonstration of AFM (not so interesting since I did a big AFM project early in graduate school), and a conference call with the NSF who funded everyone to come. There was also a poster session that filled a lot of the breaks between events, and I got to have fun presenting my poster and getting complimented on my work, and also seeing many other posters. Since this is a nanoscience event, there is a cross-section of disciplines, with most people from chemistry and materials engineering. There are only a few other physicists, which means I have been in a conversation about how it's hard to "think in math", and I got to sound smart because I knew about Bose-Einstein condensates.

Overall I am feeling more and more comfortable in this field, recognizing paradigms for research from other experiments I have seen, and thinking of cool or relevant directions to go. That's a good feeling.

And, in addition to meeting people at breakfasts and lunches together, I have been going out some. Last night several of us went to a "Mexican" restaurant with a lot of nice grilled meats, where I had sea bass with avocado that was really good. We were going to go dancing afterward but it was too early and places were empty, so instead we took some wine up to the hotel's roof deck and sat talking until late. Then today, after the morning talks our afternoon was free, so many of us went on a city tour of San Jose, going to the Museum of Jade, the Teatro Nacional, a small market, and seeing a lot of parks, monuments, and historic places.

I am also working on my thesis some, in the free moments I have when I'm not too tired. But it's nice to experience the "think of exciting ideas, meet interesting people" part of science again, which feels very absent when writing up a thesis. I hope the rest of the trip is as great as this first section has been.
clevermynnie: (mask)
This chart comes from the Survey of Earned Doctorates via Sociological Images:



Note that the x-axis is a bit compressed, so it only runs from 10-80%, not from 0-100% as you might initially guess, and the middle of the chart is 45% rather than 50%. But even with that, it reflects a lot of cultural norms about what type of work certain people do. The overall trend is an inverse correlation of the economic rewards for being in a field with the percent of the field that's female, but then you see big outliers to that trend, like philosophy and to a lesser extent biology. But you also have to keep in mind that this is at the Ph.D. level, and further along in careers the divides are even worse... which is partly due to the effect of history and when older people started their jobs, but also partly due to the cumulative effects of narratives surrounding gender and work.

Also, take that, physics.
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
One of the cooler things about the conference that I went to in Dallas was going to two talks about food and science.

The first talk was about the science of barbecue, given by a professor from Texas A&M. He talked about how they have a freshman seminar there about barbecue, which is immensely popular, and he shared some of the cooler tidbits from that class. There are a lot of ways to improve the texture, the perception of tenderness, of meat. You can chemically tenderize it, using a vinegar marinade or salt brine to break up the long muscle fibers. There are also some plant enzymes, like papain, that supposedly do this. You can cook the meat at a low temperature for a long time, to dissolve out the collagen and tough connective tissue, which is essentially what barbecuing in a smoker does. And you can also mechanically tenderize it; I have seen those meat tenderizing mallets before, but he showed a video of a steak on a conveyor belt going through this set of sharp, thin mechanical teeth that chop the muscle fibers into smaller pieces (he claimed that most restaurant steaks have gone through this process). He also talked about meat color and how it mainly comes from what chemical species are bound to the iron in myoglobin (a protein that binds to iron and oxygen in muscle tissue). Meat that's purply, like vacuum-sealed meat, has water bound to the iron. Red meat has oxygen bound to the myoglobin, and the pink color of cured meats like ham comes from nitrites in wood smoke that bind to the myoglobin. Carbon monoxide can bind to myoglobin as well, and this is what causes smoke rings in very slow-cooked barbecue. He also talked some about caramelization in meats and the Maillard reaction, things I had heard of before but understood poorly enough that I still have plenty to learn.

The second talk was about a non-science major course at Harvard, which was created largely as a pretext to invite Ferran Adria, the Catalan chef of El Bulli, to give a talk. The structure of the course was pretty cool: each week they invited a guest chef to give a public talk, and do a course lecture and demonstration, then they had a lecture from the course organizers to go into a specific scientific concept in the guest chef's demo, and also lab time to recreate the dish shown or something similar. The course was immensely popular, as were the public lectures, and they had a cool tradition of applauding at equations and desserts that started when they were discussing phase changes, and a guest chef showed them a dessert made by pouring supercooled infused water onto a plate where it immediately solidifies. They tried to solidly introduce scientific concepts using a framework that most people are interested in: food. And, all the lectures appear to be on youtube here, covering things like sous-vide cooking, browning, emulsions, viscosity, and heat. I haven't watched them all yet but I plan to!

If you are interested in knowing more about this sort of thing, the textbook they used for the course was On Food And Cooking, by Harold McGee, who came to the first lecture and talked about how he never thought they would teach a course on this at Harvard. I had heard of this book before and know a few people who have read it, and I think maybe it should move up my list of books to read. I wish I could get a copy of the new, enormous, and expensive book Modernist Cuisine (New Yorker review which is itself informative) with its tantalizing photos.

clevermynnie: (Default)
I recently came across a free academic journal article that is about obesity, science, and the idea of health at every size. It reiterates much of what I wrote and quoted here, but extensively referenced and written in a more dry, academic style (because it's a journal article). I strongly recommend reading it! It's called Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift.
clevermynnie: (smile)
I just realized that I had a dream about making graphene nanoribbons last night, where I was trying to have a lot of them in solution for dropcasting onto devices but their sizes were too varied. It's a weird thing to dream about, especially since I don't even work with graphene, but I suppose since the early work on it won the physics Nobel prize yesterday (completely prematurely, IMO) it was on my mind. It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from an episode of Futurama that touches jokingly on what it is to be a scientist...

Farnsworth: These are the dark matter engines I invented. They allow my starship to travel between galaxies in mere hours.

Cubert: That's impossible. You can't go faster than the speed of light.

Farnsworth: Of course not. That's why scientists increased the speed of light in 2208.

Cubert: Also impossible.

Farnsworth: And what makes my engines truly remarkable is the afterburner which delivers 200% fuel efficiency.

Cubert: That's especially impossible.

Farnsworth: Not at all. It's very simple.

Cubert: Then explain it.

Farnsworth: Now that's impossible. It came to me in a dream and I forgot it in another dream.
clevermynnie: (I see beauty)
I spent awhile listening to segments of the Symphony of Science when they got popular a few months ago, and last night I remembered them and started listening to them again (plus some new installments). I really like these. There are six so far.



Read more... )

:)

Feb. 15th, 2010 10:54 am
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
A mathematician, a biologist and a physicist are sitting in a street cafe watching people going in and coming out of the house on the other side of the street. First they see two people going into the house. Time passes. After a while they notice three persons coming out of the house.

The physicist turns to the others and says, "The measurement must not have been accurate."

The biologist says, "No, clearly they have reproduced."

The mathematician's eyes light up. "If now exactly one person enters the house then it will be empty again."
clevermynnie: ((open your eyes))
I really liked this New Scientist interview. It's with Bill Bryson, who has written some very funny travelogues and whose new book is apparently about science and scientists.  Choice quotes:

Do you think... curiosity in science is stamped out in school?

Science classes are almost always taught, in my experience, as if they are trying to produce the next generation of scientists. Of course, that is a vital function. But there is no recognition that a very large proportion of people are not going to become scientists.

What always disappointed me about science lessons was how the teacher would, almost as soon as they got through the door, turn around and start writing equations on the blackboard. This meant I was quickly out of my depth; I don't have a brain that is comfortable dealing with mathematics and algebra.

In fact, there is nothing in science that isn't worth being excited about. Unfortunately, the place you are least likely to find excitement, in my view, is in schools, when that is the precise place you should be handing it out to people.

Given your experience, what is the one thing writers need to do to connect with a general audience?

The greatest danger is that you forget what amazed and excited you about your field. I was talking to a particle scientist after I had read about how electrons can go from one orbit to another without travelling across the space in between. I said, "Isn't that amazing?", and he replied, "Anything that happens in the quantum world is amazing." In fact, everything that happens anywhere is amazing if you stop and consider it.

engineers

Dec. 19th, 2009 01:04 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
"The optimist thinks the glass is half-full. The pessimist thinks the glass is half-empty. The engineer knows the real truth: that the glass is twice as large as it should be for optimum utilization of resources."

--from a New Yorker article about Stove Camp, building efficient low-pollutant stoves for developing areas.
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
The 50th anniversary of a very famous Richard Feynman speech is approaching, which was called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". The speech is kind of famous in nanoscience because Feynman, in 1959, predicted a lot of the breakthroughs that would come: improvements in electron microscopy, miniaturization of computers, issues of energy dissipation at small scale, possibilities of nanoscale lithography, and other things. It's a pretty impressive speech, and it's fun because it's almost like watching someone brainstorm. The speech starts:

"I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down. Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure. Percy Bridgman, in designing a way to obtain higher pressures, opened up another new field and was able to move into it and to lead us all along. The development of ever higher vacuum was a continuing development of the same kind.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, "What are the strange particles?") but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale."

If you're interested, you can read the rest here.

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