Tuesday, January 31, 2012


If you read my blog roll, you'll find regular posts by (usually female) bloggers talking about the problem of overcommitment, either struggling under the situations they find themselves in, or celebrating the fact that they were able to set up and enforce their boundaries properly. I read this posts with sympathy, knowing that I would have similar difficulties but for my partner's strong caution against my volunteering to do things I don't have to do.

My partner has been gone 20 days. Today is my turn to write such a post.

When my family numbers 3, or when one of us is commuting in for the weekend, Saturdays and Sundays are a whole lot of fun. The days are spent outdoors, except when the weather is absolutely miserable, or someone is sick. Even then, we make an effort to get out of the house and go some place fun. This is partially because Epsilon really enjoys it, and has come to expect it, but also because we, the adults, need the stress release.

With two parents, having one or two planned fun activities per weekend days is reasonable. We share the physical play, so that neither of us is left too tired afterwards. I'm starting to realize that this is not a sustainable plan for one parent. Playing hard with Epsilon leaves me exhausted and unable to focus on work at the start of the week.

I feel like a overachieving undergrad with bad study skills:
But I want to drink all night long AND do well in my classes.

Some things are just not possible to pair, at least until I become physically stronger. At the same time, both Epsilon and I have had to give up a lot of little pleasures these past few weeks, and I need to be careful not to give up too much.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Faculty Committee

Neither my partner nor I have ever sat on a faculty committee before, never having actually been faculty before. Until now. ....

And in spite of how horrible my partner makes the first meeting sound, I find myself swelling with a bit of pride for him.

"Awwww.... he's all grown up, doing grown up-like things."*

Okay, those of you who have actually been to faculty committee meetings should feel free to smack me now.

*This blog is still free of gushing about toddlers. Gushing about adults is fair game.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Eggmus: On Housekeeping

Its a bright sunny morning, so I pull up the blinds in Epsilon's bedroom and we romp around the room for while.

After a bit, he suddenly stops, points to the motes of dust dancing the in rays of sunlight over the dust bunnies on the floor and declairs "SNOW!"

No, my sweet, I just need to find a broom.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Well wishes for another 2 body problem

I just heard that the wife of a friend of mine got 3 flyouts for TT positions, all occurring in the next few weeks. All but one occurring in towns without easy plane connections from his current city. He's a postdoc with a year remaining. They have a toddler. There's a part of me that wants to shout well wishes to her from the rooftops (or at least this in this blog).


The rest of me knows what their road ahead will look like, and I fear for their little family. I haven't asked them how they plan on managing. I think I'll keep that question for after they hear back from these interviews. At any rate, I know in my brain that having an offer is better than having none. I just wish my heart knew the same.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A few small things

I've had a lot of interesting snippets going through my head. More approprite for my non-existent twitter feed than my blog. Here's a best of compilation.

Are you not someone?
The husband of a husband wife pair attends an in house seminar and the dinner afterwards. His work is different from the speaker's topic, but the wife's work is related.
"Why's N. not here?"
"Someone has to take care of the kids."

The times, they have a chang'd.
My mother is visiting this week. We've been talking about the differences in how hard it was for her to keep in touch with her parents after she emigrated versus how easily we will be able to keep in touch after we emigrate. Epsilon is used to having virtual dinner guests. I'm currently listening to the State of the Union on line because I missed it last night. This is a great time to live.

I heard this story yesterday, about Brookhaven National Lab's tritium leak. It's a few months late, but unlike the earlier article in the second link, the report I heard came at the issue from an extreme rise in certain soft tissue cancers, like rhabdomyosarcoma in the towns surrounding BNL. I haven't had a chance to look into this in any sort of detail. I'll blog about it when I do. But my gut reaction is that of shame on behalf of the greater scientific community. We need or National Labs. But our National Labs need to be good neighbours. Otherwise, who do we serve?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nerves and rumours

Many of the jobs I have applied for are currently going through their files and sending out are you still interested/need more paperwork/rejection letters. In the first 2 categories, if they refer to a post doc position, I'm having to say no thank you, since I've already accepted a post doc. Which is usually fine.

Yesterday I got such a letter from a school very close to University H. I said no thank you, but now I'm afraid that if the rumors reach over to the TT search committee, it might affect me adversely.

Bleh, there's nothing I can do. But it's still a bit nerveracking.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Brainstorming conference sessions for young researchers

I've just been asked to help organize a "young researcher" section of a conference. This boils down to having some control over the formatting and content of 4-5 hours of talks given by current PhD students and post docs. I also have some leeway to organize other events (pending approval by the main organizers) that would be seen as beneficial to these young researchers.

I'm excited by this prospect. As a grad students, I would have loved to be to more conferences that broke from the 5-6 hour long talks a day, and did something really creative and different that helped students and post docs get more involved in research different from what they are currently working on. I've been to a few different formats that have attempted this:

1) There were Q&A sessions with experts that happened after the day's talks. This worked fairly well. Students who really wanted to engage a particular PI could do so in a classroom like setting, and there was a lot of open discussion between participants who wanted to attend a particular PI's Q&A session. However, after a full day of conference, a 2 hour Q&A session was just exhausting.

2) A round table discussion of open problems. I like this in theory, but the time I've attended something like this, the formatting of the session didn't leave time or the means for in depth discussion of proposed problems. The PIs spoke often spoke in broad sweeping terms. It is possible that others approached the PIs afterwards with good questions. The session did not inspire me with such questions so I do not know if it was effective for others.

3) Problem sessions for students. Like the Q&A sessions, but they involve speakers giving lectures, like one would in a classroom, often with homework problems. Again, a great idea to get someone who is missing a chunk of knowledge up to speed. The time I saw it implemented, the sessions were pitched at too slow a speed.

I'm wondering if anyone else has any other ideas for different formats to help young researchers enter or branch out into a field. What have you seen in conferences that have worked, or not worked. What have you always wanted to implement/see implemented if you had the chance?

Friday, January 20, 2012

On deciding to sit on a thesis committee

Here's an interesting situation:

A PhD student approaches you to be on her committee. It is her final year. Due to having the misfortune of having several committee members leave for other jobs over her tenure at the university, she does not have a full committee this late in the game. In fact, due to said attrition, finding people in the current department who are a good fit with her research interests this late in the game is difficult.

She approaches you to be a committee member. You study the general topic that she is interested in, but your expertise runs in problem A. She is interested in technique B. You think that the best papers are those that use technique B, but also address problem A. This is a commonly, but not universally, held belief. However, up to this point, no one has really talked to her about problem A. Most of the members on her committee, now and in the past have all been interested primarily in technique B.

You learn that she has is doing her PhD in order for her to qualify for a promotion in a job that she will return to next year.  Do you:

1) say you can't be on her committee, because you don't think her dissertation can be fixed to the point of your approval in the time remaining?

2) agree to be on her committee, and ask her to do all the work you would like to see on problem A before passing her?

3) agree to be on her committee and ask her to learn about problem A, and include a "further works" section detailing possible ways of addressing problem A?

4) agree to be on her committee and lower your standards for a good dissertation in light of the fact that she's been screwed over so many times, and  she has a job already?

5)Something else completely?

Not having a lot of experience with dissertation committees, I have no idea what to do, though I lean towards 3. What say you?

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Some people complain that cell phones force other people to listen in on completely trivial conversations of complete strangers. Every once in a while though, I get to eavesdrop on a couple that are so stable in their relationship that the banality of their conversation makes me smile

The Business of Living*

Did you drill the holes in the chairs?
Good, I know you were worried about that.
Are you coming down with a cold?
There are nettles in the pot.
I had a great day, I went to some museums.
I took some pictures of things I think you would have liked.
The week's almost over.
Did you get my text with the flight number.
I'll see you the day after tomorrow.
It's not the best way to spend a Friday night.
I love you.

*Many apologies to my house guest for my eavesdropping on, adapting, and then publicizing her intimate conversation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Parenting by Skype: Sometimes Linux doesn't cut it

Epsilon is coping really well with his father's absence. It helps that my visiting friend from Grad School City has really bonded with him. It helps that he's old enough to ask for stories about his father, who recently had a train fiasco. Train stories are good.

This morning, we learned that it helps that my partner has the windows laptop. Skype for windows, and I assume this is true for Mac OSs as well, have different backgrounds and some face recognition software that overlays masks on the speaker's face. Probably not the best set of tools to be using during that long distance collaboration with a colleague in a different state*, but nothing gets giggles out of Epsilon like watching his father turn into Teen Wolf and roar, or get hit by lightning from overhanging clouds.

*I've had it with this collaboration. If you don't get these numbers to work soon, I will rip your throat our next full moon!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hat Tip

I was completely blown out of the water by four little words today.

We just had an organizational meeting for an in house reading group. The standard "when do you have class/teach" type discussion to determine when we can all meet.

As we all start laying out our constraints, I hear the organizer say "Her constraints come first."

Huh? Why me?

"Because you are single parenting."

Wow. Well. .... Thank you. Sincerely, and truly, thank you.

Between only having 4 days of day care this week, and a few other things going on, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed, and struggling to make everything work out. Little things like this give me the strength to put my best foot forward and try to salvage the day all over again.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Long term impact

Once upon a time, a life-time ago, in land far far away, I wrote an op-ed piece about a local crime. It created a lot of hype and controversy because, among other things, being the bleeding heart that I am, I advocated a form of justice that took into account issues of class and opportunity when deciding a punishment.

Some feminist friends lauded me, others claimed I was soft hearted an hurt "the cause." I lost friendships over the article, which surprised me. Then the article was republished in a book, which surprised me even more. The years passed, and I moved onto my new life as a scientist.

Recently, two things happened that made me realize that while I've moved on, the op-ed is still part of the political conversation. One was a master's student contacting me for a copy of the article for a class essay. Another was a reference made by a friend who found out about the article in a political discussion with a group of people who are complete strangers to me.

I'm thrilled by these two little facts. I have hopes that I will write a scientific paper that will be relevant nearly 10 years after its first publication. But for something I wrote so long ago, as a non-expert in the relevant field, to still have impact... I almost don't care what is being said about the piece. The fact that it is still part of the conversation is enough.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Twelve years and I'm still not used to his leaving.

I don't know that I will be able to write a post after my partner leaves, so this is left scheduled just in case. From Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, his chapter on Joy and Sorrow:
Then a woman said, "Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow."
      And he answered:
      Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
      And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

      When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
      When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

      Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
      Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
      Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
      When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
This, too, will pass, I know. Just as the glorious six months we had together as a family slipped quickly through our fingers, this absence, too, will slip quickly by.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Happy face

I'm determined to write happy-ish things today.

I wrote a few days ago about not being able to communicate with my greater in-laws the importance of taking this postdoc position even though it didn't solve our 2-body problem. When my mother in-law called me a few days ago, and I told her that I had officially accepted, she gave me a whole hearted congradulations, and the wishes that the position will be everything I hope it will. It was nice.

Vi Hart has a series that thrills my inner botanist. She is such an awesome communicator. Stay tuned for part 3.

I've called in the reserves, and have a long list of friends and family staying with me during my partner's absense. First up, a friend from GradSchool City who I haven't seen in 2 years. Last we talked about kids (when I was pregnant) she was pretty sure she didn't want them for then next long while. I'm curious what her visit with me will do to her opinion.

The really nice thing about having accepted this post doc is that I can look at these next few weeks and know that this distance is only very temporary. I'm not going to be in another situation like this next year. That makes this upcoming 3 months more tolerable.

I have a nice dinner planned with our neighbors and their twin toddlers tonight. I hope this means that Epsilon won't realize what hit him until tomorrow morning, at which point, he may be able to skype with his father.

Hm... maybe that wasn't purely happy-ish. I'll stop with something sappy while I'm ahead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Another 2-body problem solved

A friend of mine from a different phase of my life recently told me that she got transferred in her job, to one that is within an easy commute (against traffic) from the house in the city her husband and daughter live in.

She used to work in the village she grew up in, which is a 5-6 hour commute from the rest of her family. She'd travel home on the weekends, and sometimes she'd get so homesick in the middle of the week that she'd catch a bus-->ferry-->bus-->train at 4-5 in the evening to get home around 10 pm, only to leave the house the next morning at 5. Her stamina amazes me.

For a while, her daughter lived with her near her work, and her husband would travel.  My friend's mother would help out with child care, but the room she rented did not have access to a bathroom, which made life more than a little difficult with a toddler.

I'm not writing this to play a "look how hard life is in poor rural villages in a God, or at least investment, forsaken poor country" card. However, since she is such a close friend of mine, the contrast between our situations has provided me with some context to how lucky I am in spite of everything.

Now they are all together, and her new job starts this week, and I am very happy for them all.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Culture clash

I just accepted the position at University F. I got a warm "We're so glad" e-mail back with a question about how we resolved our 2-body problem, and an assumption that Epsilon would live with me. (I had spoken to them about my 2 body problem, during the decision phase.)

These two lines jumped out the the e-mail and punched me in the nose. My immediate reaction was that "I've made a decision, how and why I came to that decision is none of your business," even more so if you are going to assume that Epsilon is going to live with me.

In short, the questions rang my "possible sexism alert" alarm bells. Then I realized that I'm changing countries, and I no longer have the protections and benefits afforded me by a generation of anti-discrimination activists, lobbyists, policy makers, laws and best practices. I am lucky to be living in a country that realizes, at least on some level, that human beings have flaws, however conscious one tries to be of one's biases, they play a role in hiring decisions and in how we treat others. To avoid this problem of accidentally denying someone a job because of these biases, we as a society, or at least our HR overlords, have decided that we cannot ask certain questions. I think this self censoring has slipped in a little into how we interact with people beyond the hiring decision, and questions like these are less likely to be asked.

I am moving to a country that is not as open in its discussion about discrimination as the US, and will likely face more awkward moments like this in the months to come. (I had a similar experience when talking to a professor about advice applying to post-docs, and he asked me my age. These things are just not done in the US, but is common practice from his context.)

These questions were probably asked by someone attempting to be friendly and welcoming. But it was a wake-up call to the fact that I will be emigrating, and thus not only living in a completely different social culture, but a different work culture as well.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Holiday Horror Stories

I got my tentacles on a copy of Eldritch Tales, a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's works. The edition is a black paperback with fake gold gilding and full page prints interspersed in the stories.

Epsilon curled up with me one day while I was reading this tome, and demanded to know what I was reading. So I began spinning a scary story about a print in the book. All week, he demanded that I "read" to him from the "big book." I finally buy him a scary book of his own.

The Spider and the Fly, is a book with lyrics written by Mary Howitt in 1829. The poem is a bit sexist, but it can be forgiven given the publication date. The illustrations, done by Tony DiTerlizzi are phenomenal for a children's horror picture book. It won a Caldecott Honor, and I'm only surprised that it didn't win the prize.

But back to the Eldritch Tales, Lovecraft is a master of language in his prose, but this volume had some of his poetry. It is clear why Lovecraft's poems are not recognized as literature. But they are perfectly pleasant to read.

V. Homecoming

excerpted from "Fungi from Yuggoth"

The daemon said that he would take me home
To the pale, shadowy land I half recalled
As a high place of stair and terrace, walled
With marble balustrades that sky-winds comb,
While miles below a maze of dome on dome
And tower on tower beside a sea lies sprawled.
Once more, he told me, I would stand enthralled
On those old heights, and hear the far-off foam.

All this he promised, and through sunset’s gate
He swept me, past the lapping lakes of flame,
And red-gold thrones of gods without a name
Who shriek in fear at some impending fate.
Then a black gulf with sea-sounds in the night:
“Here was your home,” he mocked, “when you had sight!”

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Convincing the folks

When I received my offer for the post doc at University F, I wrote back thanking them for notifying me before the holidays so that I could meet the family a little more relaxed.

No matter how I felt about the position, it was easier to face the questions of "where will you be next year" and "will you make it to the family reunion next year" with a job offer in hand.

Though in hindsight, telling all may not have been the best strategy for the peace of mind of my extended in-law family. All but 1 of my in-laws' siblings live within a 4 hour drive from the house my partner grew up in, which is a few blocks from the house my mother in-law grew up in. The remaining family branch is a whopping 700 miles away. Some of the cousins live a bit further away, but most settle somewhere near the aunts and uncles. It means that the family is very close knit, and the various generations interact often and well with each other.

On the other hand, it means that they have never had the experience of having family emigrate to a foreign country for work reasons. And they cannot understand the decision tree that would lead me to want to live so far away from Epsilon, rather than accept an adjunct position at University E. The family, as a whole, has put family before ambition. I don't think anyone feels like they have had to stifle their dreams to make family work, just that when the choice came between kids and a more exciting job, it was almost always obvious that the kids win out.

I am oversimplifying the situation a little bit, and not being telepathic, I may be incorrectly guessing the reasons behind people's reactions. Words were said in sadness that I think we all wish we could take back. I'm left trying to figure out how to reach out to my in-laws to make them feel less like we don't care about the family. Its harder because the attitude of taking a "good enough" job for the kids is the exact opposite of what my family expects from me.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I got an offer for a post doc that is almost, but not quite in the correct location. I've had a lot of time to think about issue, and it looks very likely that I'm going to accept it.

I realized several things about how I view my 2 body problem, and about the work life balance that I'll put out here in case it is useful for other people who are also thinking about similar situations. Advice/quibbles from those older and wiser is, as always, welcome.

This offer, lets say at University F, is about 4 hours door to door from my partner's position at University E. It is a post doc with a very active group, with lots of potential for collaboration with people in related areas.

After some phone and e-mailing over the holiday week, there's really only one university (G) at all near University E that could possibly be interested in me, and can let me know in a timely manner. They have a post doc and a TT position available. If they offered me a position, we would probably live in a place where my partner has an hour long commute, and I would have a 1.5 hour long commute. I think, at the end of the day, this is not obviously better than a once a week 4 hour commute. It is certainly more expensive, since we would have to maintain 2 households, but the commuting parent would be a lot more present for the child during our 3 days in town than if we both had long commutes. The fact that a post doc at University G is not as exciting in terms of the groups I'd be working with than my current offer at F, tilts the balance away from a postdoc at University G. A tenure track position is probably worth the commute.

The other job that ranks highest in interest and probability of getting a fly out is a TT position in the US, at University H. They will not be looking at packets until after I have to decide on my current offer, so the plan is, if I get a flyout, I explain my position vis a vis having already accepted a post doc, and explaing that I would like to defer a year if they extend me an offer. If I get an offer, I talk about my family problem, and see if I can get my partner an interview.

I've talked about University D as a place that is very interesting to me, and that is interested in me. But it is a much longer commute from University E than my current offer. They've made noises about hoping to have money for a TT position in a few years, so I think I just keep in touch with them for the next few years, which shouldn't be hard, since I see many faculty there at conferences regularly. The opening at University D may be filled by the time there is a position for me there, but at this point, there's very little to justify taking a post doc further away from University E.