Tuesday, June 19, 2012


                  To Do
                To Not Do
Develop a thermodynamic formalism for dealing with two-dimensional phase boundaries.

Develop a departmental policy for dealing with two-academic couples.

Belt out the soundtrack of Rent during the morning commute to campus
Rehearse my lecture notes during the morning commute to campus
Run lots of fun experiments at the synchrotron

Write lots of SOPs for my lab here at the U.
Catch up with dear colleagues at two conferences in beautiful locations.

Catch the words of colleagues during faculty meetings for accurate minutes.
Submit two proposals and three papers. Work on experiments, papers, and abstracts with grad students.

Submit dossier and teaching and research statements. Work on curriculum committee, nominations committee, and sign undergraduate course change requests.
Family vacation on the water, in the woods, in front of the campfire.

Family shlepping to music lessons, band practice, grocery store.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Launchpad Engineer

Happy Fathers Day to my friend P. who works at the U where I work and who is an amazing launchpad engineer. P and his husband, who is a professor at U., have two children who went to on-campus daycare and school along with my son.

The launchpad engineer is that person in the family unit who ensures that all of the family members get launched daily, and go out to school, jobs, and life—to explore, play, work, and live as best they can. It’s also the launchpad engineer’s job to help ensure that the landing pad is equipped with sustenance and support when all of the family rockets splash down after their daily adventures. Being the family launchpad engineer is a huge job, and a competent launchpad engineer is a wonderful person to have in a family.

Every family does it differently. In many families, there is a single launchpad engineer who does the whole job with little assistance.  A family can have more than one launchpad engineer. In some families, the job is done by co-engineers who work very well together.  In others there is one person who does the morning launch, and the other preps the landing pad. Families with resources can hire additional personnel to help with launch and landing and all of the other jobs that go along with launchpad engineer. All families go through times when the rockets are all doing great; at other times one or more rockets fail to launch and/or the launchpad itself is in need of repairs. When you start to look at the different ways that families man their launchpads, you may notice that some are more effective than others. Many are inconsistent—sometimes working well; other times not so much.

The one thing that will tell you almost everything that you need to know about my own family’s launchpad is that each of the two adults are convinced that they are the chief launchpad engineer. We both gratefully acknowledge the important assistant engineering role performed by the other. (But I am the real one.)

In many families, the launchpad engineer also has their own rocket to launch. This is often required by economics, sometimes by choice and usually a combination of the two and other reasons too. Sometimes the launchpad engineer job takes a temporary or permanent backseat to the LE’s own rocket. In the Museum of Competence, there should be a large exhibit dedicated to great family launchpad engineers who also do amazing things with their own rockets on a daily basis.

So when I read articles or hear people stating things like
It's better for launchpad engineers not to have their own rockets.
Being a launchpad engineer alone is not enough everyone should have their own rocket too.
Women are biologically predisposed to be better launchpad engineers than men are.
Launchpad engineers are at a disadvantage in math and science intensive fields.
or even 
Wow! I am so lucky to have such an amazing launchpad engineer at home! I  know I'm just not smart enough to do that job! It's a good thing that I'm a science professor instead!

--I think what an assortment of garbage stinky with festering baloney.

Launchpad engineers are individuals, often women, and there is great variation, but don’t forget that our society benefits greatly from its collective unpaid launchpad engineers. Instead of putting down and isolating the launchpad engineers, we—as individuals and society--should be investing our energies to provide support for all of our launchpad engineers so that families can thrive and all of us are able to launch their own rockets to explore as we wish, when we wish.

Our own launchpad is messy and a bit disorganized, but we all land home at the end, share a good meal, trade reports of our days’ adventures, and cry and laugh.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gender Bias

My department is blissfully free of bias, as I have been informed in recent days by many of its members. The fact that I think it’s almost cute how proud they are of themselves tells you how much I like most of my colleagues.

We can all count that there is one woman out of 25 tenured faculty members in our department, so we definitely recognize that we have a bad case of gender disparity. Most of us think it's a problem. But that's about the extent of our collective sophistication on the subject.

 What we need is a good map and an experienced guide to help us think through why it is like it is, point us in the right direction for solutions, and find a way that we can discuss these issues without feeling as if we are walking on eggshells with each other (i.e. me), and implement solutions.   

 Lack of diversity/gender discrepancy is a big problem, not only in academic physical sciences & engineering, but also at the tops of corporations, law firms, etc. What are the origins of gender discrepancies? is a big unsolved question because the reasons are complicated and multivariate and involve people. For example, three of the many explanations for gender discrepancies that have been floating around recently include:

            Gender differences in statistical behavior at the extremes (A "bell-curve"-type argument that I think was actually the core of Larry Summers "intrinsic aptitude" argument)

Here’s one of my question as a scientist:
Are these (and the many other) factors competing hypotheses for an issue that likely has a single, overriding cause (Occam’s Razor)? Or do many factors come together in complex ways that result in a single outcome of inequity?

And here's my question as an engineer:
What do we do about it?

One of our goals as members of a department and university is to make decisions based on data and not bias. So I think it is worthwhile to check out some of the research done on bias in decision making. The goal isn’t to purge ourselves of our schemas, or to claim that bias doesn’t exist. Ideally, some of us will occasionally succeed in recognizing our own biases-in-action, and either self-correct or even call it out for the rest of us to acknowledge and/or discuss. I think it’s worth facing the idea squarely—as trained critical thinkers—especially if it results in a better and more diverse department/ university.
Here are some more resources:


Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I recently celebrated my 5000th meal.
I am pleased with my achievements and trajectory as a cook. I aim to feel the same way about my life as a scientist: my teaching, research, writing. My job as a professor and as cook are similar in their combination of technique, practice, skill, experience, balance of perspiration and inspiration.
Here is what I can learn from my life as a cook that I can apply to my life as a scientist:
Cooking is a habit: I cook most days
I am product oriented: I put the product on the table and serve it as-is. Always a “ta-da!” never with apology.
My attitude is healthy: I spend almost no emotional energy on expectations before the meal nor post-mortem analysis afterwards.
Meals run the gamut from workaday to simply good to superlative to triumphant. The least successful ones I accept as natural part of the variation, and do not erode at my self-confidence.
After successful meals, I congratulate myself aloud at the dinner table. This is followed by Mom—stop bragging. Really? Why not? I take it as my parental duty to acclimatize my son to the swagger of women.
I have cried twice over cooking (discounting onions & shallots which make me bawl). In 1990, I made a spinach sauce that oxidized and my date called it “monkey vomit”. In 2011 I was cooking for neighbors and had marinated small pieces of meat all day and the whole meal dropped to the fire through the grill grating.
In the end, the meal is evaluated without self-judgment. I am analytical: what worked? What didn’t? What's next? Never: I should have done it better, what do my colleagues think about me. No. Not even a little bit.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Single-Minded Focus

I have decided to live out my fantasy and become single-mindedly focused only on doing my science work. Here is my first-day diary.

7am: Sunday morning: I pop out of bed. Today is the day I start focusing only on my science! And the timing couldn’t be better, since I have a proposal due in three weeks! I’m so excited!

7:15 am: Coffee

9:00 am: I am walking with my friend P., catching up on a week’s worth of our lives. In the time before single-minded-focus, we had a weekly walking date for exercise and companionship and in-depth hashing of family, work, life. Will need to evaluate whether this adds or detracts from my science-focused life. Note to self: P is not a scientist.

10:00 am: Look at me! I am at my desk working on a Sunday!
10:15 am: Very hungry. Note to self: stock lab fridge with lots of healthy goodies!
10:30 am: Awesome! I am working again.
11:00 am: Losing focus.
11:30 am: I make longitudinal plans for all of my projects. I am overwhelmed by too many projects.  I clearly have not yet broken these down into small-enough tasks.

2:00 pm. Brain travels far and wide, untethered to the work at hand.

3:00 pm. Optimism has been fully replaced by dejection. Time to come home.

5:00 pm. Concoct a large bloody mary; sit on the back patio with the computer.

6:00 pm. Family starts pestering me about dinner and asks what am I making? Note to self: need to apprise the rest of the family about my new focus only on work.

6:30 pm. Muscle memory takes over completely as I defrost shrimp and butter for scampi, put up multigrain porridge in the rice cooker, and slice vegetables for the stir-fry. My brain is concentrating again and it feels good. But it’s not concentrating on thermodynamics, it’s thinking about not slicing its fingers.

8:00 pm: I would get back to work, if I weren’t so tired. And family movie night is so much more fun… 

10:00 pm: I will try again tomorrow

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Professor Eminent in our department retired recently and we threw a big party. He stood on a podium amidst photos depicting years in science, hanging balloons and ribbons, champagne, cake, and a swarm of colleagues from grad students to emeriti and explained that his retirement won’t really be a retirement because he has no other outside interests nor hobbies (besides his science). And among the thanks he gave to people, he cited his wife for taking care of all of his needs so he could focus exclusively on doing his science.

Ah. Living my life defined by single-minded focus and dedication to doing science is one of the top hits on my own fantasy rotation. So I was definitely envious yet simultaneously thankful for my own messy but rich existence juggling my job as an associate professor in the physical sciences,  a two-career household, a quickly growing kid,  a huge array of family, friends, adults, children, life in a big complicated city,  running a lab, funding research, teaching, service, colleagues, mistake-based learning, and yes: doing science.

 And I knew it was time to write about it, in a public way.

By the time I was in elementary school I knew in the way that I knew I was left-handed that I am a scientist. As an adult on my way to middle-aged I am increasingly fascinated by the fact that science is done by people—the same highly flawed, too-human characters that enrich the good books, theater, art, dance, music that make me bawl yet also fill me up from the inside because I am reminded that I am human like that too.

This blog is my attempt to explore the cross derivatives that define the state of my life:  ideas and the people who work with them. Science and the process of doing it. The macroscopic state and the mechanisms that govern changes. Equilibrium and kinetics. Temperature, pressure, and all sorts of potentials (electricity and magnetism, anyone?). I will also explore boundaries and interfaces, at depth.

That paragraph has now merged completely into the subject matter of the proposal I’m working on, so I’m off to work on that.