Sunday, July 29, 2012

Laboratory Eden

Recently I worked in my lab for the first time in a long while. I found my lost car key on one of the benches. The same key that my husband replaced for me in honor of our 15th wedding anniversary.

15 years ago I was eager and impatient to run my own laboratory. I had worked in others' laboratories since undergraduate days, and believed I could do it better. I learned to “play” in a lab early from my biomedical engineer father who would leave me alone for hours with microscopes, circuit boards, power supplies, oscilliscopes, an old EKG machine & treadmill, and other delights to take apart and put back together.

During my early years of setting up my own lab, my PhD advisor would regale me with his vision of centralized labs—“playgrounds” for scientists, staffed with technicians and other scientists. At the time I had too much invested in my own vision of my own lab and what I wanted to accomplish that I was unable to truly listen to his idea.

But now I would love to be able to do I want what (um….I mean have my students do what they want) in an externally managed laboratory playground environment, with technical support.

In fact, we do many of our experiments at synchrotron beamlines, which are shared community resources to perform experiments that many of us in the field have in common. It is far more efficient to have staffed, group facilities to perform these experiments. However, beamtime is expensive, and the requirement for user-friendliness often implies that experiments be engineered for existing capabilities, rather than the other way around. So these shared facilities are not quite the “playground” that my PhD advisor envisioned.

It is a false dichotomy to ask “centralized facilities? vs. individual labs?”  What I’d like best is unlimited access to a combination of (1) user facilities specialized for specific experiments (e.g. microscopes, beamlines), (2) my own laboratory in which students, post-docs and I have free reign to try new things and make mistakes and develop new experimental techniques to address our questions. The problem is (1) is usually too specialized and inflexible and therefore not the place for innovation and (2) often operates on a shoestring, necessarily limited, and can be isolating and lonely.

Enter the mythological Laboratory Eden: well-managed, staffed with knowledgeable helpful people, equipment-rich, scientist-playground where people come, work, build, talk, laugh, share their ideas with each other, listen, learn, and love (science).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Marriage Anniversary Markers

Recently, my husband & I celebrated our 15th Wedding Anniversary. This year's anniversary present (see below) was extra special, since it came in the classic powder blue box.  For a list of the more traditional anniversary markers, go here.

1st            Camping Trip Anniversary
2nd           Basement Flood Anniversary
3rd            Diaper Anniversary
4th            Purple Puddingstone Anniversary
5th            Cross Country Move Annivesary
6th            Serpentinite Anniversary
7th            Maple Syrup Anniversary
8th            Jasper Anniversary
9th            Sushi Anniversary
10th          Handcarved Wooden Bowl Anniversary
11th          Grandma-calls-to-remind-us-it’s-our Anniversary
12th          Marital Counseling Anniversary
13th          I Can’t Believe We’re Still Married! Anniversary
14th          New Job Anniversary
15th          Replaced Lost Car Key Anniversary

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hot summer affair (with science)

The previous entry’s todo and nottodo lists have been very helpful to me so far this summer. I’m a to-do-list achiever. So far this summer I have been deeply involved in trying to develop a formalism for dealing with phase boundaries at equilibrium, and am having a great time doing so.

Geosciences are a bit different from physics and chemistry in that our problems are generally inverse problems, not forward problems. In all cases, the process of science uses observations to test models of how nature works. If you are a scientist who does not quite fit into this category, like a string theorist, “god-bless” as they say in my family parlance. In physics & chemistry, generally the scientist plans and runs the experiments. In geoscience, planetary science and astronomy, the Earth and planets and stars run the experiment for us, and we have to make good observations, and figure out what the results mean. And nature does not keep an organized lab notebook, but instead leaves hints lying around.

In petrology—the study of rocks—or more generally the study of Earth & planetary materials—one of the hints is how elements and isotopes partition between two phases at equilibrium—often a melt and a solid. We have lots of data both from the Earth, and from the lab. But it’s not straightforward. In both environments—lab and natural-world—it is hard to achieve and ascertain equilibrium. So one of my questions is—can we predict how element and isotope partitioning behave away from equilibrium? 

We have a lot of data—from the Earth and from experiments. And my research group has collected a huge data set over the past ~8 years or so on metal stable isotope partitioning between fluid and solid during electroplating, and there are certain aspects of the data that appear not to be predictable by the simple kinetic theories. Yes I can go to more complicated theories, but they provide too many free variables for my scientific taste. I hate fitting 8 variables to a data set. I can fit anything that way! Is there a simpler framework to understand element and isotope partitioning?

I have been working on this question in a low-key way for years, and in an accelerated manner the last several weeks. I’ll write more about the development of the theory—I still have lots to do, and lots of predictions to make, and lots of predictions to test. But now I want to write about how much fun I’m having.

I’m having so much fun doing this! I’m learning so much! I wake in the morning thinking about my beloved interfaces at equilibrium, often with a new idea, a new approach. And I’ve been spending 5-6 hours at a time many days working through the algebra and the implications of the calculations. Drawing pictures of interfaces, and finding ways to explain them to myself and others. I am thinking of how to incorporate some of the ideas I’m working on into my class this fall. And starting to outline the paper.

Sometimes science is a slog, and I just continue pushing forward, thankful for the occasional delicious small bits that come across my way.  Right now though, it’s a full-blown romantic affair complete with happy dreams, elevated mood, and anticipatory excitement about the object of my affection.