Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life Before Tenure Versus Life After Tenure

I have been tenured for five years. I think there are two major differences between my life before tenure and my life after. The first—the reduction in generalized anxiety—is directly a result of tenure. However, the anxiety did not drop away overnight. My brain and body had been trained on the anxiety of being an assistant professor for eight years plus the preceding five years of postdoc anxiety. It takes time to retrain a brain, and I am still learning how not to let the anxiety of life and work get in the way of the important and good parts of life and work.

If I could go back and do it all again, I would choose the same exact course—including the same whoppers of mistakes—if I could redo it with even a fraction of the anxiety.

The second difference is simply what results from the combination of effort and time: improvement. Experience develops me into a better scientist, a better communicator, a better teacher, a better colleague. It consists of discipline, practice, mistakes, learning, a bit of self-awareness, trying to become better at what I do.

My job as a tenured faculty member in the physical sciences at a big research university is not easy. It is a big job, a multifaceted job. It takes time to develop the skills to be good at it. Some parts come more intuitively to me than others. I work on it all. To be good at this job? Really good? I think it must take years--decades.

The basics of my job have not changed: To push forward my field via research/teaching/service. I love collecting & analyzing data, and love even more when my students/postdocs collect and analyze data. I work hard to keep the lab funded. I do my best to frame what we do in the context of the broader field—for colleagues in my field, colleagues at my university, students, the world. I practice writing, every day.

My non-work life has also evolved. I no longer have a young child. This makes a huge difference, and I finally understand what people are talking about when they talk about having young children as being simply a slice of the whole pie of life. What a difficult slice that was: working all day to set up a program, dealing with bullying colleagues, and then coming home to an exhausted toddler and exhausted spouse. Every day. In retrospect, there was lots of fun and laughter. But also I don’t know how we did it.  Somehow, we did (and still are). My family is many things. One of them is resilient. When I see my colleagues raising young families I am awed and amazed at their juggle. I get it.

What hasn’t changed is that I have one of the best jobs in the world. I frame my own job—my vision, my mission, my tasks, what’s important—and I push myself to be the best scientist I can be. The fun parts are unbelievably fun. I love the rush when a student or postdoc does a beautiful presentation at group meeting, shows the results of a study in progress: the motivations, the conception, the feasibility experiments, the next set of experiments, the tricky analysis, what happens when a creative idea is implemented. When it all comes together (and it occasionally does) there is a result that tells us something new about how nature works. Even if the data are telling us something tiny and seemingly unimportant, the rush of meeting a newborn result is wonderful. 

I dearly hope that every scientist gets to experience this feeling a lot.

And this the combination that propels me: To perfect my craft as a scientist and to share the craft with others. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Underappreciated Skill of Writing Exams

My son is in middle school. His English teacher had assigned the class an “Interactive Notebook” where they are to record their studies, their readings, and their written responses—both guided and freeform.  Last night’s assignment was a free-form genre response to the entire ~60-page notebook, with required parent involvement. My son decided to do the assignment in the form of a written quiz. He gave me five minutes to read through his entire notebook (towards the end of the time he relented and granted me an additional three minutes) and afterwards I was to take his quiz. Picture me holding my usual pre-bedtime court, with as much evening concentration as I can muster focused on my son’s notebook, and add the son bouncing around on the bed the whole time. Sidenote to people with younger children: the arrival of puberty does not mean that the kids stop bouncing on the beds. At least not in our household.

And then the timer was up, the notebook was snatched away, and I was handed a sheet of paper with scrawled questions:

This interactive notebook assignment was on which page?
 a. 60
b. 59
c. 62
d. 56”


The second question:
How many wrong answers did I get on my literary methods quiz?
a. -11
b.  -7
c. -1
d. 100%

Oh no. A trick question. My son is hovering intently as my pen decides between answer c. and d.

And a bit better, but still I got it wrong:
The plotline summary was written about which book I read?
a. Wonder
b. Artemis Fowl
c. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
d. UnLunDun

And by this time I’m reflecting on the skill that is required to construct really good quiz questions. The way that the question is written can render it trivial to completely opaque. The goal is to ask the “just right” question: that tests concepts but is not open to too many interpretations. Bonus if the question does not take too much time. Especially in a 1-hour classroom format, I do not want to give quizzes that solely test a student speed. We do work at a variety of different paces.

So—take some short-format examples from plate tectonics classes:

The following observations provided evidence for continental drift except
a.           Mountain Fold Belts
b.           Geologic Age provinces
c.           Igneous provinces
d.           Stratigraphic sections
e.           Paleoclimate evidence such as evaporates or glacial deposits
f.           Stable isotope fractionation

This example is too easy. The first five answers come right out of the first few paragraphs of one of our plate tectonics textbooks. The last answer is completely from left field in the context of undergraduate plate tectonics. Most UCLA students are good test takers, and would see right through this question.

Here is a rewritten version:
The following types of observations provided evidence for continental drift except
a.           Geologic evidence such as mountain belts
b.           Paleoclimate evidence such as glacial deposits or evaporite beds
c.           Paleontologic evidence such as Glossopteris and Gangamopteris
d.           Seismology--information from earthquake travel times

I like this question better for a few reasons: 1. The answers to the questions provide internal explanations and definitions, to reinforce learned concepts. 2. All of the answers are covered in detail in the readings and the lectures. For a person who has not studied the history of plate tectonics a little bit, it is not clear which is the correct answer.  I won’t give it away here—so please put your answers in the comments!

Here is a true/false question:

True or false: 
The force of the moon on the Earth (tidal forcing) provides the mechanism underlying continental drift

Again, Too easy.

Here is a better way to ask a true/false
For the following question, answer true or false. If the statement is false, change the underlined part of the statement to make it true
The force of the moon on the Earth (tidal forcing) is the best explanation for continental drift

This works, but is a bit easy. There is some skill involved in choosing which are the best words to underline in the statement. Here is a better way:

The force of the moon on the Earth (tidal forcing) is the best explanation for continental drift

Now this question will force students to think a bit, and the answers can be graded on a broad continuum.

The ideal test question for college students:
1.     tests concepts and facts together
2.     is not too trivial but not too complex
3.     can be finished by most students with plenty of time to think
4.     Teaches and reinforces the course ideas and concepts

The ease or difficulty of an exam has as much to do with the test-writer as it has to do with the test-taker.  

Do you have any examples of great exam questions? Terrible ones? If you prepare exams, have you had any training in the skills of test preparation? Do you find test-taking and/or test preparing fun? Frustrating?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Notes from the Teaching/Research Boundary: Tectonic Shifts

The first year of teaching a new course, the quarter passes in a haze of repeated tries and seemingly random successes and fails. This time around, the second year I’m teaching our department's undergraduate Plate Tectonics course, it is so much smoother and so much richer. 

In preparing for a recent lecture,  I was paging through my favorite-ever textbook, Cox & Hart, and found in the margins a scribbled note to myself from last year.

 “Am I the kind of scientist who readily accepts the next plate-tectonic-like revolution? Or am I so conservative that it is difficult to hear new ideas and bring them onboard? I hope for the former but fear the latter is more true of me.”

 I was born in the spring of the plate tectonics revolution, and teaching this class has made me took a good look at my own development as a scientist.  So in the past year, I have taken a triple approach to being a less conservative scientist and hopefully, ultimately, a better one.

First, I’m taking greater risks in my own research program. I’m working to answer bigger and more important questions and in more fundamental ways, by questioning some of the as-delivered explanations, and teaching myself concepts from scratch.
Second, I have suspended judgment on favoring depth vs breadth. It takes time to build each; more time to build both. Do I spend my energy getting ever-higher resolution information? I think this is my natural inclination; it’s how most scientists are trained. Or should I be combining very different types of information to help solve a particular answer? Yes this is important sometimes too, and perhaps extremely important in my field of Earth sciences, where many different types of observations of the natural world—its chemical and physical properties and their changes in space and time—combine with our understanding of physics, chemistry, and process engineering to tell us how Earth and planets have evolved. So I embrace this balance—more like an active tension—between single-discipline and cross-disciplinary research.
Talking with people from other fields is less than half the challenge of cross-disciplinary study. The important part is the listening. My final challenge is to become a better listener. It’s ok to take others’ observations at face value, and perhaps experience new ways to think about the world. Yes I’m still a skeptic and a strong one. The challenge is to ….wait…. before letting in the skepticism. The goal is to spend time steeping in different ideas, and not be so quick to push away the discomfort of the new and different.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Geophysics Problem of the Day: Energy of Compression to High Pressure

This Geophysics Problem of the day is a sample of my lecture notes describing a back-of-the-envelope type calculation of energy (mechanical work) as an Earth-relevant material is compressed to deep Earth-like pressures. In this calculation, I only look at the P-V contribution to energy, and ignore the thermal contribution.

The take-home message is that Earth-like pressures are large, and the mechanical work that is imparted on a material as it convects through a range of Earth interior pressures is enough to change the material structure and bonding.

We do these experiments in the diamond anvil cell, but generally deal with tiny amounts of samples. Perhaps a followup question is to calculate the total P-V work performed on a diamond anvil cell sample as we compress to ~100 GPa. Should we worry about explosions in the lab?

I resisted adding a second page of commentary, but there are a lot of points to make in the interstices. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Geophysics Problem of the Day: Garage Doors and Rolling Sheets

I am equal parts awed by and afraid of the parking garage door at my husband’s worksite. The garage door consists of a semiflexible metal sheet that hangs down from a horizontal cylinder. The cylinder rolls very quickly and the garage door whooshes upward. Something about it takes my breath away every time.

Part one of the geophysics problem of the day is to quantify “whoosh”. Calculate the upward velocity as a function of time for a flexible sheet with finite thickness hanging down from a cylinder as it rotates. What is the garage door upward velocity as a function of time? The upward linear acceleration of the sheet will be related to the sheet thickness, the initial radius of the cylinder and the its rotation rate.  As necessary for all decent homework-type problems, first draw yourself a cartoon. My picture is here:

Part two is to apply this physics problem to plate tectonics. Take a look at a plate-reconstruction animation, and keep your eye on India.
Can you see India whooshing into Eurasia? Pretend that the Indian plate is the garage door, and use your above derivation to calculate the relationship between plate velocity,  plate thickness, and cylinder rotation, using rates from plate-reconstructions.  Is there a giant cylinder within the Earth?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Rocks of My Life

I was born and raised along the Champlain Thrust Fault. Perhaps this underlies my interest and obsession with boundaries and interfaces of all sorts.

My first field trip was an exploration of the glacial remnants of the recently-carved Grenville orogeny—the Adirondack mounains. I participated in diapers from my nest at the bottom of the canoe, pre-verbal, pre-science.

In elementary school, I thought rocks were gray and boring (preferred stars, clouds, snakes) but I climbed the dolomite-carved sides of the driveway to our family home. Schools and girl scout camp summer camp were all along the Dutchess County Barrovian Zone. I collected garnets & mica during stream-stomping expeditions in the Taconic orogeny.

I have hiked most of the Applachian trail from NH to PA. Not all at once, but spread out over 20 years.

The more famous Forty-Sixers Club has an ignored little-sister, the "Mini-46ers". As founder, I have hiked most of the smallest 46 peaks in Eastern New York State.

No rocks, only sediments, sat directly underfoot in college. Though I remember a night on the flat boulders of the Boundary Waters watching the aurora borealis. And I remember the outing club field trip to the caves of Indiana. Once inside the rocks, surrounded on all sides, I suffered from claustrophobia.  Later our caving leader assured everyone else: “In a group of first-timers, there is always a person who cannot handle the cave.” I spent the whole day exploring IU Bloomington, with no bag and nothing in my pockets.

I did not study rocks in college, directly. But I studied materials. So I knew everything that there is to know about rocks, right? Wrong. I knew nothing, but didn’t know it. I still know $h^t about rocks but I know more about what I don’t know, and am increasingly exploring.

The state of California introduced me to geology. I fell in love. Yet as a scientist I feared the field, preferring the simplicity, the forward problems, the control of variables, allowed to me in the lab.

After my PhD I migrated East to spawn. Made my nests amidst Watchung basalt, green pond conglomerate, trips north to my Adirondack and Hudson valley homes.

The varied and ever-changing landscape of California called and I returned. My nest shakes occasionally. I am the secret guardian angel of serpentinite. I return annually to Adirondack Anorthosite. I am slowly beginning to understand the P,T progression of my youth.

My attraction to rocks, both physical and chemical, grows.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Full-Time Feminist

There is so much work to be done on so many fronts that occasionally I despair that I am not a full-time feminist. This morning I read Deborah Copaken Kogan’s article in The Nation* which ties so much of it together describing what it is like for a woman who is educated and privileged, just like me, making a career in an environment where we are held back in ways big and small from our full blossom.
            And I have multilevels of responses and I’ll list just a sampling here. Each is worthy of its own discussion.

  • Chime—this article is about me.
  • I am glad I am a scientist not a writer.
  • The author is one of those privileged New Yorky women types who drop their career to raise their kids at home.
  • Am I stupidly participating in one of those non-existent “mommy wars”?
  • Would I have larger numbers and more recognized published papers if I were A. Kavner?
  • Maybe I should change my professional name to A. K. Powers.
  • As a scientist I know that responses to-reviews are an integral important part of the publishing process. Perhaps the writing world can benefit from that instead of excoriating authors who respond to their reviews?
  • Science needs awards for Women Scientists as desperately as writers need an award.
  • Anger—this article is about me.

And my reactions are piling on my reactions, and as I’m sorting through and putting them aside-for-now so that I can get back to my papers, my proposal, stellar evolution virtual conference, my preparation for this afternoon’s plate tectonics lecture on mid-ocean ridges and magnetic anomalies, my office phone rings.

I pick up.

It is a friend, the wife of a colleague. Their son is sick and would I mind babysitting while colleague teaches his class?

Reader of this blog: now you react.

OK. Stop.

Let me write it again, the way I first wrote it.

It is a dear friend, who is the wife of a departmental colleague and friend. Their son, whom I adore, is perhaps a little bit too sick to go to daycare and would I mind watching over him while colleague teaches his class? I feel a bit wrenched as I say I can’t do it today. But yes—of course—next time, call—if I were able to—I would!

I learned this morning that I am concurrently a full-time scientist and a full-time feminist.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Winter Quarter Retrospective

Now that we're in the second week of spring quarter, I thought I'd look back at some of the richness that was last winter quarter.

Trips to Berkeley, Hawaii, Austin, DC (twice),

I met many many new people, and from different fields.

I sat between my dad and my stepdad at my sister’s birthday dinner.

There were ~5 Friday night dinners, ~18 seminars to introduce, ~2 qualifying exams. 

I was the lab gremlin, messing up one of my graduate students’ experiments.

The visiting committee strongly recommended I take a sabbatical leave.

I took a course in mindfulness meditation.

My postdoc met a rat in the lab and couldn’t decide whether to name it “Pinky” or “The Brain”

I developed a theory that might significantly alter the corner where chemistry meets cosmo/geosciences. I woke most days between  4-5am and worked on it until noon.

This last bit will keep me busy for spring and summer, and I'll write about progress in this blog, along with other things.