Monday, November 14, 2016

A template for talking to a class of science students during difficult times

Part I: What worked.

I studied engineering as an undergraduate in part because I thought I might want to be an astronaut. The day the Challenger space shuttle exploded shook me and my classmates. I remember walking into my intro to engineering class and the professor said not a word, no eye contact, just turned to the board and continued his lecture on force balance. I see —Engineers just keep their nose to the grindstone, and continue their work.

Fast forward fifteen years. I have just arrived at the synchrotron beamline having left my 2-year old back home with my husband. It is morning and we are doing safety training and preparing our experiments and someone comes and switches the TV monitors to the news. I watch a burning tower close to home and I watch as a second plane crashes into the tower. When I realize what is happening/what has happened, I crumble. I am comforted by the janitor as the scientists continue their work.

So I have learned that as scientists we keep our nose to the grindstone and what we have to offer as professionals is reason. Evidence based decision making. Data.

Last Wednesday I asked my dad: what do I say to my students today? Stick to the script, he said.

So I did. I ran from a meeting* to my class. The room—about 30 mineralogy students in the classroom—was buzzing.

What now?
What will happen to science funding?
What can I (as a student) do?
Why even study mineralogy?

I looked at their faces. I also noticed some key absences and made a mental note to follow up by email.
I don’t know.
It is now my job to advocate.
We’re here to practice scientific reason and evidence, but we also can guide ourselves by our compassion.
Today we will take temporary refuge in the tectosilicates. Think globally, act locally.

****
Part II: What didn’t work.

Over the last few years I have started asking a new question to family, friends, close colleagues: what is most important in the world right now: reason? or compassion?

Has it been a disservice, my training in reason but without a significant compassion component? Yes I think so. And I am now in a position to fix it! But how? Perhaps by bringing it out in the open? By talking?

The next day was lab time—and the TA and I decided to earmark some of the time for discussion.
We lay out our plans: Big things have happened in the world, and we want to give ourselves an opportunity to talk and share, because we are scientists and we are also people.

We acknowledged up front—listening/sharing is not a requirement. Please feel free to pull out your microscope/books/lab sheets and get to work.

There were 15 students in that room and 15 different experiences is a vast world of experience and thoughts and emotion. And I listened to the students and marveled at what a microcosm of the world even a group of 15 UCLA students can be. And there were two lab sections.

I saw warmth and sharing and caring but I also saw some crossed arms and angry eyes. Not all of us are suffering in the same way and not all of us are suffering.
And I am not trained in moderating an emotional discussion. I’m trained in math and science and engineering. I’m trained in reason, but I am not trained in combining reason and compassion. We closed the discussion, thanked the student, and got back to work. I reminded the students that I am always here to talk—about mineralogy or anything—and took my place at the back of the lab with my stack of papers to grade. Some students swung back to say hi, ask a question, tell me their stories. I checked in with others—did I make the right decision? The students are polite — I am in a position of power, even if invite my students to question my own choices with me.

I think it was a fumble, and I hope my choice did not cause students pain.

My job is to teach both reason and compassion to my science students. But in the context of being a science professor, perhaps compassion is this: gently guiding students to the discipline of learning/doing science. Reason is one of the foundations of hope. I must also welcome compassion to the table though: I’ll share with all the students my acknowledgement that not everyone is able to get back to work yet. Part of our job as scientists is to take care of ourselves first, so that we are able to do the sometimes hard work. And that I am here/there/everywhere for all my students for all the parts of being human and being a scientist.

Footnote
*It was a luncheon where a spectrum of UCLA adults sat in the room and some of us cried. Turns out the woman sitting next to me and crying with me was the oral surgeon who pulled a few of my wisdom teeth a few years ago. Small world. And I now have a sister in blood, teeth, and tears.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Today's Journal Entry--post election plotz


today's journal entry:

10 Nov 2016
When I woke up on Monday I thought the nightmare was about climate change, and maybe in the end it will all still be about that.

People I know who felt safe in the world—e.g. my son, husband—were devastated on Tuesday night. People who already knew they were never safe in this world, that safety is an illusion, that it was always an illusion, but maybe the illusion crumbled for them with the towers 15 years ago, felt a familiar deep pit in their bellies that could always be invoked, but managed to be set aside so that the work of life could go forward.

For months now, I have been thinking of John Dos Passos’s invocation of “we are two nations.” The entire trilogy is a mechanism for this phrase.

The two nations have always been the haves and have-nots, but what it is exactly that we have and who has it and has-not it has changed.  In Dos Passos’s day, was the proletariat vs the bourgeois—the nations were the wealthy and the workers. It is still so, but doesn't seem the best description of what divides our two nations right now. I know a little bit about my nation (the nation that lost the election: young people, immigrants, liberals, city people, people of color, scientists and science-lovers/believers, etc.) and I know almost nothing about the contours of the nation that won this election—very religious right coupled with rural white people. My ignorance is a telling symptom of the problem, and I am ashamed of it.

 Every once in a while I saw a glimpse of the other nation on facebook, or maybe followed a thread on my twitter account into what appeared to be a vast world,  not for me and so barely accessible. Like very occasionally coming across pornography on the internet. So far from my experience, appreciated as fantasy by a some people I know, but a world that I almost never see—the filters are too good.


The pit in my belly knew about the sinking ship the minute HRC called one of our nations “a basket of deplorables.” It is not hard for me to put myself into a person’s shoes who is being called the passel, and I would want to drain the swamp too. Swamp. There’s something low and wet and smelly and animal about that word.
When women suffer for her mistakes, the world suffers too.

On the other hand, DT made a gazillion mistakes—omigod his life is a series of mistakes encased in a veneer of narcissism—yet he is now our president.

**
Even amongst my nation, everyone I’ve talked with has a different take-home message from this. Is it because we don’t listen to each other (my neighbor) was it HRC’s badly run campaign? (I've heard this mostly from white men of privilege) is it plain old hatred of the womanly swamp? is it our country’s deep racism and backlash against Obama? tapping into a fear/fascism with the time-tested targets of immigrants and Jews? Is this the result of a generation of republicans sowing mistrust in the tedious hard work of governance and the messy craft of governing? Is it simple greed that helped sow the mistrust in the first place? Is it the interconnection of the world coupled with a lack of the discipline to do evidence-based decision making amplified by a barely knowable statistical fluctuation plus mathematical instability? It’s only been a day and there are many more I haven’t yet talked with so yes yes yes all this and much more.

So now what?
For me right now it’s:

Count blessings at all scales—from my son who poses the question to himself about how best to live his white privilege to my country that accompanies a revolution in leadership with gentle words from leaving leaders side-by-side with protests of the people.

Listen to my friends and acquaintances who come from different backgrounds when they describe and explain their family and friends back home, like ambassadors from another nation. 

Take care of the next generation and the world for the next generation, for I’m now the old generation.

Recognize the path that maximizes reason and compassion and walk it hard.


Journals and prescient dreams


I’ve written a journal since my beloved fourth grade elementary teacher Mrs. Peterson taught us the way. I had a red spiral notebook, and until recently most of my journals were red spiral notebooks.

Here’s what I wrote early Monday morning this week

7 Nov 2016
Water water everywhere in last night’s dreams. Canal systems. Rapids. Waves breaking over the gunwales of big boats and small boats. I am in hiding in a closet with children. I am on a big ship. We get word that it is sinking, but we do not believe. Then when it appears to be listing, we try to do all that we can to fix it. Then when it is clear that it cannot be fixed we have the boat pull over to a frightening looking constructed island structure that seems worse than the boat. But we have to abandon ship.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Who Are the Adults in Your Rooms?

“What do you want, Burr
What do you want, Burr
What do you want, Burr
What do you want….

…I wanna be in the room where it happens…”

from Hamilton, “The Room Where it Happens”

I’ve been noticing my rooms for decades now.
How many women? What is the age/stage distribution?
Are there any people of color (sadly in my area of academia there are rarely many)
Who is the senior woman? (increasingly it’s me)

In a departmental seminar:
How many faculty vs. grad students? How many undergrads?
Who is paying attention, who is not?

If we’re there to make decisions:
Who speaks; who listens? Who is not paying attention?
Who can be community minded? Who is often self-centered?
Who brings in evidence to make arguments? who makes emotional arguments?

Lately the question is:
Who are the adults in the room?

I have learned a lot from watching the adults in my rooms. The adult pays attention and is reasonable and wise. The adult elevates the conversation and helps prevent the group from making bad decisions. If there is bad behavior, the adult will say “that behavior is not acceptable here”. 

I find myself thinking lately about how even a small faculty meeting is a microcosm of our larger political environment, and how my segregated rooms mirror the segregation of the world.

My jobs are to work to widen the doors to the rooms and to be the adult when I am inside.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Transition Year Questions

This year marks a transition between major life stages.

 Our son is a high school senior this year, and likely off to college next year at this time. I have no idea how my husband and I did it, but somehow we have been the launchpad engineers for almost 20 years of daily adventures and misadventures.

Has time gone by quickly and slowly and every rate in between?
Has it been fun? exhausting? hilarious? frustrating? happy? miserable? educational?
Are we satisfied? unsatisfied?
Yes to it all.
We are also now middle-aged.

This year I want to tie up hundreds of my dangling threads and also think about what's next:

More adventures?
Still adventures?
Travel?
Friendships?
Time?
Teaching?
Scientific accomplishment?

Making the world a better place?

Political engagement?

When I left engineering for geoscience, I remember knowing I wanted to be a “scientist, writer, teacher, mother” and that is pretty much exactly what I have been doing for ~25 years.

Now I have more questions than declarations.

I need a mantra (or do I?) for the next 25. Compassion, connection, tikkun olam.  Something like that. But also do I want to develop my leadership skills? Leadership is just creatively helping people be the best they can be. In other words, bringing out the best in people. Yes—I would like to learn how to do that better.

I also want to write more. And in writing more, write better.  And share more of my writing, including some of my personal writing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Big tips and the balance of justice


Over 20 years ago I was a graduate student in a high-pressure (both meanings) research group. I had a mediocre-quality data set and my advisor was demanding that I produce the paper. The work was a collaborative effort with a colleague whose student was to measure one property, I was to measure another, and we would combine the measurements and analysis in a single paper. I made my measurements, obtained their measurements (but only after I completed my analysis—I remember the collaborator PI being very strict about this), combined them, and wrote a draft, exchanging drafts and comments multiple times with the collaborator PI and his student. I was under continual harassment from my advisor “submit the paper! submit the paper!” So I did, to a top-flight journal. Nothing for months. Then, about 2 months later, I got reviews back—pretty good reviews. Reviews that suggested it might be published in top-flight journal. My advisor was happy. I circulated the reviews to our collaborators and set to work on a revision.

Two days later I get an email (or was it a call? Or a letter? I don’t remember how we used to communicate…) from the editor of the journal saying that the manuscript was withdrawn by one of the co-authors. It was bad. The collaborator PI had told the editor that the manuscript was submitted without his being notified and pulled it. It is true I had submitted the paper without his explicit “OK to submit”. I had a long talk with the collaborator PI and I listened to his reasons for withdrawing the manuscript. There were more and I remember them. Bottom line--when he decided that his student’s part was more interesting than ours (perhaps justified, see citation details below) then it ceased to be a collaboration. In his head.

Here was the fallout:
Plenty of short-term anger to go around, and some long-term hard feelings as well.
There were two papers in the end in society journals—one w/collaborator’s grad student as 1st author (cited 29 times since then) and the other with me as first author (cited 12 times).

Careers are long, so over the past several years I find myself working with the collaborator PI. He’s the president of an NSF-sponsored research consortium and I have participated, sat on committees, chaired committees, and now I’m chair of the executive committee. So now we spend a lot of time working closely together. Another reminder to myself to never burn bridges and perhaps instead perform occasional structural maintenance on some of the more decrepit ones.

But there was a part of me that was always sore about our history, and maybe it got a little bit in the way of the service-related work we had to do together.

Recently I was out for dinner and cocktails with collaborator PI (and another colleague), and we had a good talk about our service work and ideas, and we even laughed together, and then the time came to split the check down the middle (other colleague gave us cash.). We tossed in our credit cards, and then the tabs came back, and collaborator PI passes mine to sign. I peeked at his totals--he is a really meager tipper. So I compensated by doubling the tip on my tab.

Later, as I was sorting through receipts, I realized that he had mixed up the tabs, and so I left the big tip on his credit card, not mine.

The amount of joy this event has given me is perhaps a little bit out of proportion with the actual event. I was laughing so hard when I told my son that he asked if I was high. But to me it feels like the scales of justice have been ever so slightly restored to proper balance. And no-one suffered.

It’s the little things that make me happy.

Here's a summary of the "teaching moments"
1.     Maintain your bridges. You might like to have them in the future.
2.     Do what you know is right, even under great external pressure to do otherwise.
3.     Get your co-authors' explicit “ok to submit” before submitting manuscripts.
4.     Leave big tips.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen Years Ago


On really clear days, we could look outside our upstairs window and see the top half of the twin towers many miles to the east, between our New Jersey ridge and New York City. The morning before the towers came down, it was like that. I was getting our 2-1/2 yr old son ready for daycare—potty, snuggles, breakfast, tv—before heading to Newark airport. It was hard for me leaving my baby behind to run experiments at the synchrotron—but my brain knew that doing the science was a long term investment in my career, and that my son seemed to thrive just fine when I was gone, though extra clingy for a day or so when I returned.

There was less airport security in those days, so I definitely noticed that my driver's license was checked twice—once when entering the terminal (which was normal, though not always a given), and again right before boarding the airplane (which was unusual). I even said to the flight attendant "You guys are being extra careful today." She paused and looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. Aren’t you glad that we’re doing this for your safety?” I had my scientist-self on, and lectured her: “Actually, no. I think that flying is mostly safe, but there are finite risks. I don’t think that checking IDs at the door truly address that risk, but it does make people feel better.” She looked at me (probably thinking: “what a jerk. A girl jerk.”) and I looked at her (probably thinking: “Oops. Messed up that interaction. Maybe I just should have said ‘thank you.’) and we went our ways.

It’s one of those conversations burned in my mind, and I’m sure for the flight attendant also.

 What a day for flying!! I spent the flight with my nose pressed to the window—so crystal clear—and my brain thinking about all of the calibrations that my colleague Wendy and I will get to do for the next two days before our experiments start.

My memory rejoins when we got in early to the beamline office space the next morning. There were TV monitors, and someone said—turn them on. So I saw the footage of the 2nd plane going into the towers. Time slowed, so I remember my brain working through the unlikelihood of two accidents in which planes hit the towers. My first hypothesis was domestic attack (still in  the wake of the Oklahoma city bombings). And I screamed. I think. I don’t remember. But I remember people trying to calm me down. I remember the janitor with her arms around my shoulders. (Years afterwards we would see each other during my synchrotron visits.)

As we discovered who carried out the attacks, I saw deep into a horrible future—in which we live in fear, in which we trade our privacy for a false sense of security, in which the world is engulfed by hatred.

I called my family—husband, mom, dad. All safe. My sister was watching shocked downtown workers swarm away from the city across the Brooklyn Bridge. I wondered about my cousin, who lives right there. (She was in her living room—with its panoramic windows looking out on the towers. She had turned her toddlers around so their backs were at the window. She sat opposite, distracting them with play, and saw all.) I remember thinking: where is our president? Shouldn’t he be addressing the nation?

We’re scientists, so we attempted business-as-usual, following the lead of the beamline science manager. There was new safety training to do. There were attempts at calibrations. There were attempts at concentration, but we gave up soon after and Wendy and I took the car and drove to see some colleagues at the University of Chicago. Four of us sat outside on the grass, and talked. Of science, of the world. There was nothing. Nothing in the sky. Everything felt different.

Nothing flew for a day or two. We had a rental car, and our plan was to drive east, and I would drop Wendy off in Ohio on the way home. But planes flew again, and I was on one of the first planes out of O’Hare.  It was silent boarding. The flight was silent. Landing was silent. The people who had cellphones called as soon as the plane was down, and you could hear people whispering to their loved ones “We’ve landed. I’m back. All seems ok”.

I came home to a new upstairs view—a plume of smoke where the towers used to be.

Then no more specific memories, only my retrospective on the aftermath.

My husband was the only parent who stayed at work that day so our son had the corporate daycare center (and its great staff) to himself.

My mom is a mental health professional in Dutchess County, NY, which lost several workers in the towers. She directed the crisis intervention  and family support services for the county’s FEMA Project Liberty grant allocation. I still have a notepad from the time, which I kept for its motto: “Feel Free to Feel Better”. My mom’s personal response is complicated and interesting and worthy of another essay. Short summary: re-emergence of bacon cheeseburgers in her life.

For years and years, when I leave my family (almost always to do science), my heart feels like it will explode. Less so with time.

For a short but significant time, the part of my brain that knows that life-goes-on allowed the part of my brain who knew that the-world-is-coming-to-an-end make some decisions. Less so with time.