Thursday, June 30, 2011

Self regulating nuclear fuel

I don't get to talk to people who get to work with things that effect our daily lives (e.g. engineers) on a regular basis in my line of work, and that adds a layer of exciting mystique to the projects they work on, or know about.

I heard about this novel type of nuclear fuel rod over the other day, in a discussion about the directions that nuclear programs in various countries are going in light of the earthquake in Japan. The jist of this technology is that by using UH_3, the fuel rods self regulate to oscillate within a temperature range. Above a certain temperature, the UH_3 breaks down into hydrogen gas and uranium, at which point the reaction stops and the rods start cooling. When it cools to a certain point, the hydrogen gas starts reacting with uranium to form UH_3 again. No chance of meltdown. The uranium serves as the fuel, the hydrogen as the neutron moderator, one nice neat package.

I just thought that this was an incredibly clever (and lucky) solution to the problem of nuclear meltdown. I am in awe of the engineers, material scientists and physicists involved in developing a project like this. Wikipedia says that there are no working prototypes have been developed yet, and if I am to believe the person who told me about this, the politics of the situation makes a working prototype seem unlikely.

My misgivings about nuclear power aside, this technology is just cool!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why can't more conferences do this?

My partner is participating as a "mentor" of a summer school. This means that he gives a series of lectures, and works intensively with a small group of students, as well as more generally with all the attendees. The school is designs to be a place where graduate students work intensively with each other and mentors on developing a small set of skills.

Somewhere along the line, the organizers decided that since this was an opportunity for up and coming academics to learn crucial skills that will help them succeed in their future careers, the issue of work/life balance needs to be addressed as well. My partner will be presenting his thoughts on striking this balance.

I've been to conferences where there have been panel discussions about open problems in the field, I've been to conferences where there have been discussions about going on the job market. But unless it is specifically a conference for women, I have not encountered a discussion about 2 body problems or kids.

I love, love, LOVE the fact that they have asked a male in a dual academic situation who is doing most of the parenting this year to talk about this. Although knowing the organizer, the thought process on "who to rope into this" probably was "Hey, you're a young academic, you have a family, go give this lecture," with little forethought about the implications of what his specific situation and/or gender may have on the lecture.

I've given him my thoughts about what points I would raise if I were doing this:
  • Short term sacrifice solutions to 2 (+ epsilon)- body problems are not worth the career hit they are likely to cause.
  • To the guys: If your female partner is also an academic, the traditional housework (and child rearing) workload sharing is not cool, unless you have discussed ahead of time that she doesn't want as glamorous a career as you do.
  • Differences in how having a child has affected our academic social lives.
There are other issues that we would both like to raise about child rearing in general, but it is hard to decide what is useful advice for people who are generally career oriented, versus what is specifically important advice for academics. Also, we have no ideas on how to actually resolve a 2-body problem, otherwise, we'd discuss that.

We are talking suggestions. What do you wish someone had said to you in a conference like this? Or, if you've been lucky enough to be in a mixed gender room with this discussion, what was said that worked?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Good things about conferences

There have been some very good things about the first day of this conference. Here are some highlights in decreasing order of silliness:


It's The Beagle that makes this worthwhile.

2) Unlike other male dominated situation's I've found myself in,

there isn't actually a line for the women's bathroom.

3) A more senior woman who I see every year or so showed up for just the day. Everyone who knows her swears by how nice and accomplished she is. Frankly, after a few comments she made on a thesis draft, I've spent a few years terrified of her. That's the time it took me to realize that her harshness was out of a desire to see that I advance. It was nice to be see her, to meet her current graduate students, to talk about work and life. Today I realized that she is the only person who I may ask for a letter of recommendation that not only knows my full situation of both my family life and work life, but that I'm really glad knows everything. As harsh as I've found her criticism to be, I think I know that she is not only in my corner, but is very happy for me to consult her on anything. Professional friendships like that are rare. Seeing her today was a good reminder of that.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Baby Pride

We failed to take Epsilon to Pride again this year. Last year, family was in town, and the relatives who were going to go with us bailed at the last minute. It's harder gather up the energy to take a single digit month old to a parade under those circumstances. This year my excuse is travel (I left the country the morning before). But I really want to get him very gaudy rainbow paraphernalia. More importantly, 52 years after Stonewall, there are such wonderful strides being made in this country (thank you New York) that this year's pride would have been a wonderful place to go celebrate.

Growing up in a conservative culture, in a conservative part of the country, I could not imagine when I came out that it would be legal for me to marry whoever I chose. I remember my first girlfriend and I discussing whether or not we though we would be able to marry by the time our kids would want to marry. I completely misjudged the speed with which the US has changed on this issue. It feels to me like some sort of political phase transition has occurred over the last 10 years, but that may be purely from a lack of being plugged into the heart of the movement.

A thank you to those who are working today to make this possible. Maybe next year we'll head out as a family in rainbow bandannas.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mentoring moments

My strength in teaching is in one-on-one interactions. In order to encourage students to partake in this activity, I try to make myself more accessible, or appear to care about their lives when I see them in office hours or other settings. Usually this ranges from asking how the student's term is going, to sharing unimportant details of my life, to following up on details of their academic lives they have shared. Over a 10 week term, where I'm interacting this way with students on a less than once a week basis, this formula works pretty well in striking the balance between being friendly and a "real person" and over sharing.

I'm discovering that this formula doesn't work well when meeting with students every few days. My summer undergrads come in, we spend 45 mins to an hour talking about their questions, how to proceed, and then few minutes asking them about non-academic stuff. But these are students who I have gotten to know pretty well at this point, and it becomes harder not to cross the line between small talk and over sharing.

For instance, when I discussion of my travel schedule for the next few weeks leads to a discussion about my family, and then to my surprise, an offer to babysit Epsilon, while she is doing research for me?

Maybe as a female mentor I should have pointed out that making statements like that to her colleagues is not a wise move in terms of career advancement. I think I was too taken aback to do anything other than firmly say no, and wrap the interview up.

This is completely my fault for fostering a relationship like this. I need to tighten up and create some more distance. Its just an interesting example of how algorithms fail up changes of domain.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Doing the number

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an event that (re)raised my awareness about non-Asian presence in the sciences and engineering on campus. Thank you for all your personal data. I decided to poke around to see if I could find actual data.

The Society for Women engineers has a set of links to the some nice tables compiled by the NSF about various racial distinctions, (African American, Non-white Hispanic, American Indian) and genders in various fields.

The numbers are starker than I'd imagined. The data I finally decided to look at is 5 years old, and if you poke around on the NSF pages, they talk about increases in minorities of various varieties increasing, but it is in single digit/annum rates.

Here are a few numbers. In 2006 number of PhD's in awarded. For the record, accoring to the 2010 census, there are between .9% and 1.1% American Indian/Alaskans in the US (depending on how you count Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders), 15.08% Hispanic/Latino, 12.3% African American.

Total Phd's granted by general field in 2006, and percent female

All Science* Engineering Health
Total:45,596 29,854 7,191 1,906
Female:45.05% 44.20%** 20.19% 67.37%

Underrepresented minorities (as percentage of total):

All Science* Engineering Health
AI/Alask:0.26% 0.19% 0.06% 0.31%
AA:3.92% 2.82% 1.43% 6.56%
NW-Hisp:3.31% 3.35% 1.56% 2.47%

Female Minorities (as percentage of minority group):

All Science* Engineering Health
AI/Alask:53.37% 52.27% 0.0% 50.00%
AA:63.22% 61.76% 40.78% 79.20%
NW-Hisp:54.5% 53.82% 29.46% 74.47%

It would seem that once a minority group makes it into academia, the male/female divide seems to disappear. This is a trend I've noticed in other contexts. Maybe I'll ramble about that later.

The big losers? MechE (13.85%), EE(14.86%), Physics(16.56%) for gender inequality.

For Underrepresented minorities, the wall of shame is Astronomy (1.52%), EE(1.88%), Physics (1.9%).

This doesn't cover the whole picture. I'll be keeping an eye out for other pieces of "interesting" data, like who gets hired, over the next few weeks.

*Agricultural, Biological, Aero/Astro/Oceanic, Computer, Math, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Psychology, and Social sciences.
** Dropping Psychology, and Social science, where women are overrepresented, this becomes 35.84% Not great, but respectable.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A toast

In honor of the day.

To Epsilon's father, for almost literally taking care of Epsilon for the first 9 months of his life to compensate me for gestating him for 9 months.

To his father, for showing him what a 40-60 (M-F) housework sharing relationship could look like, so that he can improve up on it to 60-40 (M-F) now that we have a child.

To all the male professionals I know in dual professional households who have made the sacrifices to put their female partner's (and children's mother's) careers on par or ahead of their own.

To all the male academics that came before me, who took interest in their kids' growing up so that it became more acceptable for female academics to take interest in their children.*

*Actually, I've never liked this myth about why it is easier for mother/academics today. But this is my fourth toast (read fourth shot), so I'm a bit tipsy at this point. Bottom's up!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why I wish I was a humanities major

I just heard Robert Fisk use the word "palatinate." Then I had to look it up. I wish I had more $10 words sitting in my vocabulary.

Sometimes, why something won't work is more easily explained by stepping back and using common sense and English, than by pushing oneself through a day's worth of grunt-work.

Lilies do look like open maws, each petal a speckled tongue. Or, more sensually,

"... glory
of the open throat, white,
spotted with crimson."

"Vespers" Louise Gluck

Another one for the BAD IDEAS archive

Potty training by skype.

Especially on a day when the toddler refused to take his nap at day care.



Something that Dr. O said a few days ago gave me an epiphany.

Turns out scientists without kids aren’t very interested in poop either.

Okay, where the hell is this going?

I've realized that since coming to this new position, my networking has flown out the window. At first I put it down to having a very hard last trimester (when I started this job), and then to having a child that didn't sleep through the night during his first year. But none of that is true now, and I'm still not doing well at the socially talking to visitors when they come. Part of this is because I've fallen out of the habit. But I'm realizing that a lot of it is that I've become a lot more self conscious about what subject matters I can talk about now a days.

I no longer have a new "art film featured at Cannes that really moved me," or an exciting tale from my recent hiking trip, or great author that everyone else has heard of, but I've just discovered to fill the small talk at after conference dinners. I have toddler stories, airplane conversations, and political news. The first and the last are not good subjects for small talk with senior academics who you may ask for a letter of recommendation, or at least a kind word at a hiring committee.

I freeze at the thought that someone I know, but haven't seen in a couple years will ask me "So what have you been up to these last few years?" What do I tell him? My research output has been low (but not 0), and my life has been, well ....

Okay, having put at least part of the problem of why I'm having a hard time walking up to people and chatting, what do I do about this? I'm taking suggestions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Morning is wiser than evening

I'm back from my two weeks with my family today. Last night was really rough on my psyche. I kep asking myself why I was continuing to travel back and forth across the country when my official teaching duties are over. Why did I take on two summer students, when I could be sitting in my partner's office or his university's library doing my own research, and spending time with Epsilon in the evening? Why does it seem like the two of us are not satisfied unless we push ourselves to the very limits of what we can take emotionally.

But morning is wiser than evening.

1) I took on summer students because I benefited greatly from undergraduate research. I went to graduate school at a university where the undergrads were mostly neither interested in, nor capable of tackling current research problems. I didn't like working with those students. I like working with the students here who can do research. I believe in passing forward kindnesses done to me. All the faculty mentors I had as an undergrad took me on without much direct benefit to themselves. I should pass that on to the next generation.

2) I've heard from several friends of mine who did their undergrads at this university "I wish I had a female teaching an intro level class in your department." I realize that I could be a strong female mentor at this university, if I choose to be. Whether or not I want to, my presence has an impact. It is probably unlikely that all 3 of the students who approached me for a project randomly happened to be female. As someone who struggled through my decision to continue in academia, and almost chose not to for lack of female mentors, I can't turn my back on this situation.

The real test is whether these answers will hold water next time I have to sneak out of my apartment to catch a plane to avoid upsetting a toddler.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I agree with you, in spite of your argument

I find myself saying this to my good lefty friends all too often. Today's episode is brought to you by formaldahyde officially being listed as a carcinogen, and from my favorite daily news hour, Democracy Now.

The following is part an analogy between defending a violent dog, and defending a possibly harmful chemical.
Then we start finding it in our environment. We find it in our food, in our water, in our air, and in people’s bodies with biomonitoring. And then the chemical industry will say, "OK, my dog bites. It bit you. You’re exposed. But it didn’t hurt you. Don’t worry." And the arguments there go something like, "Well, it causes cancers in lab rats, but those lab rats are different than people," for differences that are hard actually to explain for the industry. "And so, don’t worry about it. Jut because it causes cancers in lab animals, don’t worry. You’re safe. Even though you have it in your body, your families, it’s in your food, in your drinking water, it’s contaminating the air you breathe, don’t sweat it."

What they are trying to say (I think), is that there are often major corporate interests in slowing down the classification of various materials as cancerous, and that this is a BAD THING. I agree. But for crying out loud! Just because it causes cancer in lab rats at some consumption level doesn't mean that we should be afraid of it at any level. Lab rat's AREN'T HUMAN (with some exceptions on the blogospehere noted).

Aspartame is the first example of "bad for lab rat/safe for human" that comes to mind.

Please, my lefty activist comrades, don't misuse science to promote your ideas. Science presumes a null-hypothesis that has to be rejected. While politics can slow down this process, it does take time, and that time is legitimate and necessary, not a conspiracy against the public good. Please don't fear monger when there are actual scary, important issues at hand. Misinformation is a bad thing. It just hurts me more when it comes from my team.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On dogs and children

Some departments are really cool about bringing children to the office. Other departments are really uptight about the noise that an infant or toddler might make. The same analysis applies to dogs, plus some arguments about sanitation/allergies. I think it is important to gauge the norm before bringing either over.

I've brought both to the various places I've worked, including yesterday, to a department where I've seen more dogs than kids around.

I brought Epsilon by the office after daycare because I'd forgotten to grab a few things. While I'm getting things together, the guy a few doors down walks down the hall with his dog and a graduate student he seems to want to talk to (or maybe its the grad student who wants to talk to him?) The owner and parent introduce the dog and the child to each other, and watch them play, while the graduate student awkwardly stands by. The owner goes into his office, the dog and Epsilon follow. When I go to retrieve Epsilon, the owner welcomes him in. The graduate student awkwardly tries to talk to Epsilon. The owner apologizes to the graduate student and plays with Epsilon and the dog. Eventually I decide that risking upsetting Epsilon's by the lack of a dog is better than taking up more of the graduate student's time, and take my (predictably screaming) toddler away. If I knew who the graduate student was, I'd write him an apology.

This entire interaction made me feel intensely awkward. Maybe it is because I am very sensitive to Epsilon screaming in public spaces, especially work spaces. Maybe because I didn't know how to respond to being an intruder in someone else's professional interaction (where I don't know either party particularly well). Maybe it's because people act very strangely around dogs and children.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

City of Joy, and discussing penises

This is a wonderful interview I just heard about a women's support center being opened in DRC. It's being put together by V-Day, and other local organizations in the Congo. V-Day is an anti-Violence Against Women organization put together by Eve Ensler, the author of the Vagina Monologues. Something like this can never be successful without the help of the "other local organizations" but I don't have easy access to their websites, (if they exist), to give credit to them by name.

Domestic violence and rape activism was something I did in a pre-grad school incarnation. Stories like this warm my heart.

In my post entering graduate school life, Eve Ensler turned a lousy day into a great story.

There were a bunch of us sitting around after lunch in the lounge, trying to avoid grading, or our own homework, or whatever work we had lined up. Somehow the discussion turned to a public figure's pennis. (Don't ask me how.) The conversation bounced around the room, getting raunchier, as these conversations tend to, ... until I added to the discussion, at which point it screeched to a halt. I think everyone suddenly realized that there was a non-pennis wielding member of the department present, and I realized that I was the only such person in the room.

I went home feeling very dirty, and realizing that this was the first time in my career that I'd been made to feel unwelcome among my academic peers because of my gender. The obvious answer to my mental slump was to read the Vagina Monologues for the first time. When I later related my reaction to the incident to a friend who was at the discussion, I was met with a lack of understanding of why women needed a space to be able to talk about their sexual organs. After all, men don't need a separate space to talk about theirs. He wasn't able to explain the general discomfort in that room to my earlier comments either.

Eggmus: Celery

Epsilon woke up from a nap at a friend's house, cranky and disoriented to find the adults eating at the table spread with a late afternoon snack. To distract himself from his after nap grumpiness, he wanders over to my friend and starts screaming at her. I want dinner too!

We start with the foods he knows.

Bread? NO!
Cherry tomatoes? NO!
Mushrooms? NO!
Humus? You don't like hummus.NO! I don't like hummus! Why are you giving me hummus?
Lettuce? Would you like me to help you eat the lettuce?NO!

I lift him above the table to let him choose what he wants for dinner.


He only has 16 teeth. He can't process lettuce without help, there's no way he can process celery. But he's in my lap. Which means he has access to my superior mastication powers. Chomp, pull, tear, take out of mouth, put in my mouth. Continue to gnaw and suck the juice out of the next bit of celery while I pre-chew the piece he's given me.

I appreciate the good eating habits, but have I mentioned that I hate the taste of celery?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Airplane conversation

I had a fun conversation on the airplane* the other day with the two high school English teachers sitting on either side of me. Most people, when they hear that I do sciency stuff a variation on the "what is it good for" question, and I find myself going down that dark windy road to justify the tax and tuition money that pays my salary.

But this was a fun variant of that question: "What do I tell my students when they want to know why they have to study math?" a.k.a. when will I ever use this stuff?

Being English teachers, I got to explain things to them in terms of english literacy, which was fun. In order to survive (read road signs, buy groceries, etc.) one doesn't need to read much beyond an elementary school level. Similarly for math (basic arithmatic to balance a checkbook, file taxes, count change and tip).

Being able to read a newspaper (middle school to high school level reading, depending on the newspaper) makes one an informed citizen. Having read some of the great works of literature may improve one's quality of life. Understanding ratios, large numbers, rudimentary logic, some probability and stats, (all topics that can be taught in middle and high school) also makes one an informed citizen.

Does the fact that polling numbers for an election switching between 51/49 and 49/51 from week to week mean that one candidate is surging ahead one week only to fall behind the next, or can we say the fluctuation is due to polling error, in spite of the media hype?

When we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on foreign aid, is that a lot of money? How much is it per capita of where we are spending the money? How much is it as a percentage of our budget?

Knowing more advanced math (and living with a man who is a walking repository of intermittently useful pieces of data) improves my quality of life. Being able to do an order of magnitude calculation of the volume of the oceans' waters is sometimes surprisingly useful. But I admit, most high school students would find me strange, if not nerdy (GASP!).

It was also nice to hear the English teachers talk about why high school English is taught the way it is. I remember it being a long stream of reading about whale blubber ("Moby Dick") and a competition to find the most esoteric yet relevant symbolism in "The Great Gatsby" or "Macbeth".

Their explanation for this inscrutable 4 year long exercise was simple. Having the cultural grounding to be able to read the words "Draco Malfoy" and know from the name that this is a villian is important. It adds to my quality of life when reading a book or watching a movie, and it does so in a way that I don't even notice anymore.

Was some of it over the top, and irrelevant to my life path? Sure, but so was the AP calculus class of these women took 10 years ago. It was a good exchange of perspectives.

*My last commute for 2 WHOLE WEEKS!!! :)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

on meeting housemates on campus

I've been telling this story to illustrate a point a lot recently.

I had a housemate who I haven't had much chance to see since she moved out several months ago. Earlier this term, I invited her to swing by my office to have lunch, and catch up a bit.

She parks her bike, and not being part of the campus community, asks around to figure out where I'm located. She realizes that people are staring at her. She tells me this when we meet.

My stomach sinks as I realize that she is probably the only undergrad aged African American female on campus.

I've had several conversations about diversity on this campus recently. When we (the general public) tend to think of diversity on college campuses, especially expensive colleges that undergrads and their parents work very hard to get into, we still tend to think about diversity in the same terms that we think about it in our neighborhoods and public schools. "What percentage are non-white?" And schools come up with numbers of "minority" students, the overwhelming majority of whom are some stripe of Asian, Depending on the school, they may throw foreign students into that batch, the majority of whom are European of some stripe.

This type of rigging the books hides the key point behind the point of diversity pushes on campus. It should be about the underrepresented populations.

This diversity problem seems to be worse in the sciences and engineering than in the arts and humanities, which is one reason for the very undiverse undergrad student body at my campus.
In the interest of keeping this post from going the way of a rant, I'll end with a question.

Dear readers,
How many african american or latino academics do you know? How many do you know of? How many are female? (If you are not based in the US, feel free to insert your favorite socially and economically disadvantaged minority into this question.)

My answers are, if I restrict to STEM fields, (2,1), 0, 1.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Thoughts from a late night

Done. Grades in. Two weeks with my family coming up.

Running screaming down pitch black tunnels is a lot of fun.

Taking part in certain undergraduate traditions is good for the soul. But you can never go home again.

A 21 hour day is very very long.

I park my bike next to a sprinkler that goes off at 12:30 am.

This is why I am not a night owl.