Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Favorite Journals

One of my postdoctoral advisors had a policy about manuscript submissions: when he felt he was treated unfairly during the editorial process, he would refuse to submit to that journal again. You can imagine that high-profile journals had been long eradicated from his goto list. In fact, towards the end of his career, it is almost true that the sole journal left for his submissions is Canadian Mineralogist.  High quality journal, but limiting.  One of the many things I learned from this particular advisor is the value of not holding grudges—in the realm of scientific publishing of course, and more generally too.

The Journal of Applied Physics has a special place for me and I think for many in my field of high-pressure mineral physics.  While many of us are geophysicists, and mostly publish in Earth sciences related journals (and I have some favorites in that category too) we are also materials scientists and condensed matter physicists. Materials are neat, and even more so when compressed and heated to extreme conditions. There are interesting applications for high-pressure and -temperature research (hint: KaBoom!). And identical concepts and tools are brought to bear on the materials we study—mostly oxides and metals. If I have a contribution in applied materials physics, that is not PRL-level groundbreaking, then I often submit to JAP.

            Recently, a collaborator and I finished a tightly written manuscript on the high P,T behavior of Co metal. My assessment: technically challenging experiment, nice data, interesting analysis, useful for us and others, but not groundbreaking.  JAP is the perfect venue for this. JAP has published papers by others on the same material, and papers by me describing simililar measurements using similar methods on other materials. But yikes! When we went to submit, it appears that our contribution does not fit neatly in any of the available subcategories for manuscript submission.

The story ends happily. I sent a polite email to the editor-in-chief, asking if the intention is to exclude my field from the journal, and he responded quickly and favorably, saying no! Definitely not! The only intention was to modernize the table of contents, but not to exclude, and politely requested my input on how to refine the table of contents. The manuscript is submitted. Wish it well!

Web-of-science search of JAP plus "diamond anvil cell"
Web-of-science search under my name plus JAP.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Trail Names

This summer, my son hiked the entire Green Mountain Long Trail with a group of teens from his VT camp. Putting aside the naches-induced kvelling for now, I want to write about the concept of trail names. These are nicknames that long-form thru-hikers bestow upon each other (no-one gives themselves a trail name) that simultaneously celebrate their journeys and acknowledge the difficulties of the trail.

Some examples from my summer travels…

Holly Hobby (curly red-head/freckles)
Mister Blister (AT thru-hiker with crocs & duct tape as footwear)
Little Turkey (A kid that I know, who was spooked by a bevy of flapping grouse)
Left It Burning (don’t forget to put out that campfire!)

Summertime is wonderful, isn’t it? Wasn’t it?

And then there is today—there is my friend and colleague Hope Jahren’s blog post about a deranged colleague mis-sending her a nasty email full of vitriol. (I recognize and point out that the colleague's idiot actions have absolutely nothing to do with Hope at all. I hope that Hope’s chair/dean does the right thing and has an official notice placed in this person’s personnel file and insists that he obtain what appears to me to be much-needed psychological counseling. Dear Hope's Chair: Compulsory counseling is a thing. Use it.)

Hope's story shocked, saddened, and horrified me. And reminds me of my own experiences, many years of observations, and all of the other stories I hear from the women in science. Part of me wants to bury my head in my work and block out the mistreatment of self and others. Ignore it, hope it goes away, try to keep moving forward as positively as possible while looking for opportunities to promote change from within. After all, any criticism about my science is welcome—will only make my science better and me a better scientist. The psychological work that must be done to keep my keel down and sails out—that can only serve to make me a stronger wiser and hopefully more compassionate person.

The unfairness of it all— the discrimination of women in science at all scales, not just sensed and observed but documented in so many places, in so many ways—it’s real. It’s here. And it is in addition to the “normal” stresses of the job that we all have as scientists, including more  uniformly distributed generalized unfairness (perhaps this should be called the “non-gender-biased component of unfairness)—like the scramble for scarce resources we all must participate in, and the generalized lack of professionalism in the academic environment.

This needs serious counterbalance. How many attaboys make up for each awshit? 

I will tell you that my own personal professional requirements are consistent and humongous helpings of wonderful science with my days filled with data, discussion, working, and writing with a multitude of diversely talented, intelligent, clever and committed people.

My Vision:  We Female Scientists create about ourselves and our departments and our intellectual communities wonderfully rich and rewarding days, with immense intertwined systems acting to support all of us--women and men and research staff, undergrads, faculty, admin, grad students--as we continually push ourselves and each other to do our best science and be the best scientist-citizens we can be.

We need trail names, don’t we?

It might be small and simple but maybe a powerful way to share and celebrate the journey we are on as scientists while also affirming the nature of difficulties we encounter as female scientists on the trail.

So I’ll start the ball-rolling by suggesting:

Hope Jahren: Warrior of the Growing Life

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Goldschmidt Conference Report-A Blog-Along Conversation

I just discovered Terry McGlynn’s great blog, and he wrote about a geochemistry conference—the Goldschmidt conference—which I attend occasionally. I was there in Sacramento, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you, Terry. Here, conversation-style, are his comments and my response & discussion.
·       As far as I can tell from this conference, if it were not for the study of isotope ratios, we would know absolutely nothing about the earth of the Earth. There’s a scene from Being John Malkovich in which all characters just say, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” This meeting felt similar: “isotope, isotope, isotope, isotope.”
True—but remember that “isotope” is a tool (it’s just chemistry, after all, on an extended periodic table) and the scientific questions-and-answers are key.
·       A lot of geochemistry is about developing and assuring the validity of methods. It all comes down to the accuracy and reliability of methods. I’d say that the vast majority of the talks and posters that I saw were about methods.
This community is heavy on the methods-development. This is good—there is great scientific richness to follow when better & better methods are being developed. Perhaps the focus on methods-development is an indicator that the science itself is not overly-mature.
·       A not-uncommon conversation-starter: “What machine do you have?”
“How big is your machine? Mine is so big!”
Such an interesting conversation to me because I come from a community (mineral physics) where we have made the transition to shared community resources for much of our work. I prefer the term “evolved”, and many years ago discovered that I could really make a geochemist uncomfortable (if desired) by saying the words “Shared community resources”
Much of the state-of-the-art mineral physics measurements are made at synchrotron-based beamlines, which are one to three orders of magnitude more expensive than mass spectrometers, depending on how the accounting is done. What this has meant for our field is worthy for an entire post, but includes at least these four positives: 1. Shift in focus from the techniques to the “big science questions” 2. a semi-organized community effort to discuss grand challenges and seed community infrastructure and facility 3. the ability for mineral physics to exist at smaller institutions, not just large rich ones. 4. More camaraderie and cooperation in the early & now-approaching-mid-career generation than in our previous pre-synchrotron advisors’ generations.
I think at least partially adopting this model would very very very (x100) good for isotope geochemistry.
 Geochemists are beardier than ecologists. But perhaps less scruffy.
Is the gender balance similar? Are there more beards simply because there are more men?
·       When conference registration costs about what I imagine you could get for a kidney on the black market, you get what you pay for. Very well organized, copious snacks of the non-cheap variety (including fresh raspberries and blackberries) and always fresh fruit available, constant coffee, and lots of drink tickets for the poster sessions. Which serve good beer. (Then again, the Entomology meeting is only one hundred bucks cheaper or so, and they don’t have any of that). And the students who volunteer not only get free registration, they also get paid!
The student-volunteer aspect is a good reminder for those who kvetch about costs.
·       I’m used to ecologists battling for fame and status by being the champion of an Important Theory. At least from the view of an outsider, I didn’t see this so much of it in Geochemistry. People weren’t selling theories, they were selling methods. (Then, I was told by insiders, once a method is unassailable, then it can be used to make all kinds of claims.) There still are crazy politics and personal agendas, but from my perspective, this meeting seemed a little closer to the false stereotype of the careful and passionless scientist.
Don’t worry! Grandstanding abounds!
·       These folks are, on average, fun and laid back.
Aren’t first impressions great? My guess is we’re the same…

·       Geochemistry has the same ethnic diversity problem as the fields of science with which I am familiar. And maybe a little worse.
Insert frowny face here. Note: perhaps existence of some community resources  will help diversify the field? Not sure if it has or has not for my field.
·       I was surprised to not see a super-duper emphasis on over-fancy statistics. There was plenty of modeling, and of course a well-reasoned treatment of variance and sampling errors. The approaches to stats were definitely not shoddy, but lacking the statistical machismo that I’ve grown accustomed to among ecologists. I walked away from the meeting with even greater confidence in our stated understanding of the historical chemical conditions on the planet.
Interesting—I think those with extra-worthy statistical chops can clean up in certain areas of geochemistry. Also big-data approaches might be useful.
·       When insect abundance increases in response to nutrient availability, then this is best summarized by saying that insects are “indicators” of nutrients. (To me, that’s a little bit like saying that a delicious meal home-cooked meal is an indicator of a quality grocery store.)
Oops—did someone misunderstand one of the points in your talk?

·       I suspect it’s harder to be a geochemist at a smaller institution than it is to be an ecologist. Geochemistry seems to always require one or more expensive machines that require constant love and maintenance. (This machine apparently measures isotopes of some kind, in some way.) So, you first need the cash to have the machine, and then you also need to keep a full-time lab tech. Without a tech, then faculty end up being mechanics rather than manuscript and grant machines. I suppose fancy private colleges can keep machines running if you’re blessed with a good technician.
·       You’d think that geochemists get to tramp all over the world for fieldwork. But from what I could tell, a bunch of people work locally. Moreover, a bunch of people are relying on samples collected by others. There is plenty of fieldwork; I talked to a grad student whose thesis is about dating volcanos and glacial periods in Iceland. I met a really cool guy who’ll be spending time working in super-remote Siberia. And people who go scuba-diving on coral reefs. But, it seems like a lot of it is in the lab, based on core samples that someone sends to you in the mail.
See my response about shared community resources. They permit participation from a wider variety of institutions. Less focus on instruments for some scientists means more focus on questions & science & samples = better geoscience.
·       Every person was extremely generous with their time in explaining very basic things to me. There were many terms and acronyms that they knew that I didn’t, and basic mechanisms or analyses that I hadn’t seen before. And big theories too. Bigwigs, postdocs and grad students all were both interested in sharing with me and took their time to make sure that I really understood what they were doing. I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of questions, and I did far more listening than asking. It was refreshing that this non-specialist was not only accepted, but also welcome, at the conference.
I found the same to be true (in general) when I first started doing isotope geochemistry experiments. There was some hostility, but balanced by support.  
·       What a bummer that it was in Sacramento this year. Vienna would have been nicer.
I have the opposite opinion about this. I liked the fact that I could drive to my state capitol, rent a cottage a few miles away, and bike back and forth to the conference.  Vienna—especially—is one of my least-favorite cities I have visited.
·       I met some folks at the meeting who I know internet-knew through this site, and they were really cool. I also failed to cross paths with some people, too, since I was only there for a short time. And since there are presumably a few geochemists reading this now, they’re well prepared to correct my misconceptions, I hope!
I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in Sacramento. Looking forward to meeting you at another Goldschmidt conference

Monday, June 23, 2014

What I Did On My Sabbatical

Last winter one of our visiting department colloquium speakers asked me what I was doing for my sabbatical?* My answer was overheard by my department chair who decided the time was right to inform me—then and there over celebratory wine and dinner at a colleague’s home—of the requirement to write up an official report on what-I-did-on-my-Sabbatical. So I’ll take care of that official part right now:

Dear Dean---,
Thank you so much for granting me sabbatical time in Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 (with a quarter in-service during winter 2014). I came home from work most days by 3 pm. Every day that my son and his friends stayed off the marijuana, I considered my sabbatical time well-spent.  

Yours always,
Professor MineralPhys

Plus there was the normal professional stuff, posted in my annual inventory.

That’s the short version. But what else did I do, besides weekday afternoons spent grilling quesadillas and baking cookies for my son and his friends to enjoy while they played video games instead of doing their homework?

There was a year spent trying to learn stat mech, transition state theory, and isotope theory. Lots of equations, derivations, making up constraints. Even if it comes to nothing, it felt like time well-spent.

I spent some time here. And some time here.

I had fun. How much? At one point, my brain thought: Is it possible to die from too much fun? My brain also answered this thought, which is what I really learned on my sabbatical, which I clearly needed to learn:
How to work hard while also not feeling guilty when I’m not working.

*The phrasing is often “where did you go for your sabbatical?” Asked that way, with its inference of spouse with flexible work life who can watch over the family, irks the bejeezus out of me. One of my colleagues didn’t buy my “sabbatical is a state-of-mind” response. Dear colleague who told me it’s not a real sabbatical if I don’t go to a foreign country for the year: I hope that after your life of science is done, you will be permanently assigned to the giant quesadilla grill in the sky.

Prof. Kavner during a sabbatical moment (Photo Credit: Prof. Kavner's Dad)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Academic year inventory 2013-2014

Each year at this time I summarize my year’s activities. It’s hard to see the forward progress while I’m living it day-to-day, but looking back over a year I can see the accomplishments. It was a half-sabbatical year. I worked hard on a new theory project and learned a lot but no tangible (published) product yet. I travelled more than ever this year.

6 papers published
6 papers submitted
~14 works-in-progress
3 active grants
2 big plus 2 small proposals submitted
1 renewal
1 one-year-terminal renewal
2 rejection

Synchrotron Experiments
APS time—carbonate silicate experiments
APS time—Anke’s experiments

COMPRES (2014 Columbia River Gorge)
Goldschmidt Conference (2014 Sacramento) (AK:2 talks Group: 2 talks)
CalTech Planetary seminar June 2014
DOE Geochemistry symposium (AK: talk)
LDEO seminar April 2014
ELSI  Tokyo Tech visit April 2014 (& talk)
Electrochemistry Gordon Conference (Jan 2014 Ventura)
AGU conference  (2013 San Francisco) (5 group abstracts)
GSA meeting (2013 Denver)
AGU committee meeting (Oct 2013)
U. South Carolina (Sept 2014)
AMNH seminar (Sept 2013)
CDAC review, Chicago (Sept 2013)

Group successes
Postdoc: got job offer and moved  to new job.
Grad student 1: submitted 2nd paper, new experiments, passed quals
Grad student 2: advanced to candidacy, 1 paper published, 2nd submitted, 3rd in prep

Teaching highlights
Taught ESS 119 undergraduate plate tectonics (3nd time)

Service highlights
COMPRES-chair of infrastructure committee
AGU Governance committee
Editorial for pcm—shepherded a batch of new papers
Reviews: many
NSF panel
Departmental service

Blog, twitter
@realscientists curator

All Travel
COMPRES meeting Wisconsin June
NYC-POK-VT (8 different beds for 8 different nights…)
Summer sublet in NYC!
July synchrotron trip--APS
Sept: Chicago CDAC review
AMNH seminar
U. South Carolina Seminar
Washington DC AGU committee meeting
October GSA meeting Denver
November Daddy-daughter Grand canyon/Flagstaff/Phoenix
December San Francisco
December Texas Christmas
January Family Puerto Rico
April My Japan/ Family Japan
April NSF DC
April LDEO visit
May DOE geochem DC
June Goldschmidt Sacramento
June: east coast/drop kid at camp

Saturday, June 7, 2014

My Visit to ELSI

Soon I will report how I spent my sabbatical time this past academic year.  But for now, here is a link to the blog hosted by Tokyo Tech's ELSI, where I spent some time earlier this spring.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Your Auntie-Advisor

Sometimes I’m auntie-advisor. Not for my own students, of course—because I’m their advisor, not “auntie-advisor.” But for others’ students, auntie-advisor is a great role to play.

When you’re from where I’m from, auntie and anti- are homophones, and that’s just as well, because auntie-advisor and anti-advisor are both relevant descriptions.

Your auntie advisor makes no demands, sees and appreciates all of your hard work, and cheers on your every wonderful scientific progress and outcome. I never had an auntie-advisor when I was growing up as a grad student, but I love being one for my colleague's students in my dept. and those that I meet while visiting colleagues' labs on the road.

As you progress, there will always be plenty of colleagues who will dole out constant criticism, might show you the exit door, will be hard on you, and demand more and more. Of course I can add to that--I've been trained to do so! But who is around who will only be supportive of all of your efforts? Understands the hard work and occasional misery? Empathizes with the human investment of trying to achieve at the pinnacle? Your auntie-advisor of course!

I’m sure it will be even more-so when I become Grandma-advisor. 
Can’t wait.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fermi Problems and Earth's Surface Heat Flux from Interior

One of the things I teach in my undergraduate courses is how to do order-of-magnitude calculations.

An order-of-magnitude calculation (otherwise known as “Fermi-problem”) is a method to estimate quantitative answers for complex problems by combining smart logic with pre-calculus arithmetic. No calculators allowed! But scrwaling on napkins is encouraged.

Here’s one of my favorite order of magnitude questions because 1. It’s not difficult 2. But it’s an interesting Earth problem 3. With gobs of science-y richness at its center. I do it in all of my undergraduate and graduate geophysics classes.

The problem is this: Given the following map of surface heat flux, make an order-of-magnitude of the total surface heat flux coming from the Earth’s interior.

Map of Earth's Surface Heat Flux From Davies and Davies (2010) via Wikipedia
Here’s how I break it down for an undergraduate class:

1. What quantity is mapped here and what are the units?
2. What are the lowest values and where are they?
3. What are the highest values and where are they?
4. What is the average value of heat flux for the surface of the Earth?
5a. optional—how does this value compare with an incandescent light bulb (I can joke here about how this question will be obsolete soon)
5b. optional—how does this value compare with our own (human) energy output? (appeal to the ergometers machine at the gym here)
5c. optional—how does this value compare with the solar heat flux?
6. Now that we have an average value for heat flux, what other information do we need to get the total heat?
7.  How does one estimate Earth’s surface area? (crowd-source for formula for surface area of sphere –remind students that this is a good formula to memorize. Crowd-source for Earth’s radius of Earth. Encourage students to use iphones/internst for this step.)
8. Pretend that students are already perfectly competent to calculate order of magnitude surface areas once they have the values of radii and formula. Suggest that they round up to 1 sig digit on the radius and suggest that 4 * pi =10.
9. Then remind students to deal with units.
10. remind students that numbers with 10^12 have prefix “Tera”
11. Students should get an answer that is roughly 50 terawatts.
12. Watch them smile when they realize that the five or ten minutes that we have spent on this problem gets them fairly close to “accepted” values ranging from 44 to 47 TW.

Next up—where the map above comes from, another teaching opportunity for the concept of diffusion, why the total heat flux is important, and how and why scientists argue about it.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fish report 2: Abby vs. Anchovies!

Recently, one of our department visitors (prospective grad student? Faculty candidate? One of the plate tectonics undergrads during office hours?) surprised me by asking me what my hobbies are.  I hadn’t thought about “hobbies” per se in so long that I needed to reframe the question for myself in order to answer it:

What, outside work and family, enriches my life?
(note—this is different from wikipedia’s defn. of hobby as something done regularly for pleasure, usually during leisure time.)

Well there’s food. I hesitate because I don’t want to erode my efforts to patiently educate my family to Never Call My Cooking a Hobby! The education consists of the following proclamations spoken as loudly as possible, while swinging around and pointing my kitchen knife directly at my students: What??!!? You classify the work that I do to prepare good food for the family as a hobby? Just because I get joy out of doing this job does not devalue the fact that it is still labor!! My Labor!!! (If my son is getting the lecture I might go off on a tangent about the labor involved bringing him into the world...) The lecture material is even more effective when I’m in the midst of preparing animal carcasses. Then I hand out assignments to whatever pupils might still be nearby: Taste the sauce & tell me what it needs! Chop the onions! Take out the garbage! Pour me a drink!

Recently, Santa Barbara’s Community Seafood Cooperative expanded and the past two months I have had my seafood share delivered to Santa Monica’s wonderful Wednesday produce market. I already wrote about the first month: angel shark, rockfish, swordfish, and mussel

Now I’m noticing I haven’t blogged since last month’s fish report. It’s not that my work/science/professional life doesn’t offer untold richness in potential blog material. I’m working on revising a paper for resubmission, and will blog about that science. I will blog more thoughts on how academia and academics, science and scientists, all suffer from lack of diversity. But while I was juggling big loads of teaching, research and service this past quarter, it has been much easier just to blog about seafood, if at all.

This past month dealt some difficult shares. First, windy weather and storms cancelled the share delivery. We mused about familiar themes of man-versus-nature over take-out pizza.  The next week there was a big pile of ridgeback shrimps, who looked remarkably alive as I twisted off their heads and removed their exoskeleton and had them sit like maggots in the colander. Squeamish? Sorry. Can’t be squeamish about the food share. Plus they fight back—at the end of the process my hands were red & swollen from tiny shell-shard cuts. They were delicious sautéed pink with lots of shallots and butter and eaten with linguine.

Week 9 of any academic quarter is never a high point. There are hardworking and tired grad students, lab work, proposals due, late reviews, cranky colleagues, faculty interviews, dog-and pony show for hordes of prospective graduate students, papers to write, lectures to give, plus it was my week tweeting as one of the @realscientists. In short: total spread thinnage and academic exhaustion at work while at home a second full week of single mom-dom due to traveling spouse. And in the middle of the week, I squeeze time to run to the market to grab my seafood share: a generous pound of small, still shimmering anchovies, and they’re looking at me with all their shiny eyes and I’m looking at them saying Fuck You, Anchovies Because You Are Not Arriving at a Time in My Life When I Can Deal With You. Into the freezer they went.

The weekend came and I slept and spent time with family and friends and rested. By Sunday afternoon I was ready to face down the anchovies. I defrosted them under running water. Between anchovy #5 and #10 I got the hang out of cutting off the head, finding the correct ventral cut, pulling out the guts, and then zipping out the backbone. I layered them in a ceramic bowl in piles of salt. I filled the bowl to the top with vinegar (sherry plus apple) and threw them in the fridge. I woke (too) early Monday morning, rinsed off the salt & vinegar & layered them in good olive oil & parsley & garlic & went back to sleep. Monday night they were cured.

This batch was too salty for eating on their own (next time—shorter salt marinade: 2-3 hrs instead of 12…) But they are perfect ground into pasta sauce ( one or two anchovies sautéed with the garlic & onion & tomatoes & red pepper over pasta) and Caesar salad dressing  (two anchovies blended with lots of parsley, more olive oil, meyer lemon juice and a barely poached egg & poured over salad). And they were great as the sauce on last week’s share: swordfish.

Anchovies in their salting phase

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fish report

One of the highlights of this winter has been my membership in a new seafood co-op.

Each week I go to the farmers’ market to collect my pound of fresh-catch, bring it home, cook it, and feed it to my family. The first week was angel shark, and I gave it my standard fish treatment (recipe below). Next was pacific rockfish, often sold as “pacific red snapper”. This was made into a farmers’ market ceviche, with a variety of market citrus. The third week’s catch was a big hunk of swordfish, which I divided into three steaks, and gave my standard fish treatment with cilantro sauce. Last week was mussels. I sautéed up an onion and head of garlic in half olive oil/half butter while I scrubbed the mussels, and trimmed their beards. Then into the skillet they went along the remaining wine in my glass. I covered the skillet and threw the fresh pasta into a pot of boiling water. I drained the pasta, poured it over the mussels (now perfectly steamed and waiting in their open shells) and mixed in some miso and grated ginger. Delicious.

Recipe: Standard fish treatment for prepared filets or steaks. (oil plus two toppings)

Preheat oven to ~350
Prep fish: pat dry on a towel, salt & pepper, and perhaps a dusting of flour if it’s a thin fish.
Put the fish skillet on the stovetop on a hot flame. 
(I have a few: these are oval-shaped oven-proofed skillets with a handle)
When skillet is hot, add a generous splash of oil and a generous pat of butter.
Plop fish in the skillet. The oil & butter will splatter all over.
Put the oven's top-broiler on.
When fish is halfway done, put on topping 1, and place under the broiler.
When fish is almost done, take out of the broiler & put on topping 2.
Serve in the hot skillet. Fish will finish cooking as you herd your family to the dinner table.

Some of my favorite combinations of oil/topping 1/topping 2
Butter/capers/lemon & parsley
Peanut oil/sesame oil & green onions/lime juice & grated ginger & soy sauce
Ghee/curry & yogurt/cilantro
Olive oil/curry & salsa/parsley
Olive oil/salsa verde/
Olive oil/capers & tomatoes& shallot/parsley & lemon
Butter/shallots/miso & rice wine vinegar

Aqueous reduction reactions

Next in a series of blog posts about one of my favorite subjects, electrochemistry.

The hydrogen evolution reaction is one of the most famous chemical reactions there is. On a water planet like ours, it is the most important reduction reaction.

So, if something is oxidized in water:
            M = M++ + 2e-

Then there are basically only four choices for the reduction reaction.
If oxygen is present, then the reduction reaction is always:
½ O2 +2e- = O-2
In acidic water, the reaction is 2H+ + ½ O2 + 2e- = H2O
In basic water, the reaction is H2O + 1/2O2 +2e- = 2OH-

Note that in acidic water, the reduction reaction of O2 neutralizes the acid.
While in basic water, the reduction of O2 makes it more basic.
Reduction of O2 to O- always moves the pH of the solution up.

But that’s only if oxygen is present.
When oxygen is absent H+ must be reduced in an aqueous system.
This happens at far lower potentials—it takes a lot more energy to make 2H+ take two electrons than  1/2 O2 to take two electrons. (in fact—you can think of oxygen as grabby when it comes to electrons. It’s why breathing feels so good.)

In an acidic environment: 2H+ + 2e- = H2(gas) which bubbles out.
In a basic (or neutral) environment: 2H2O + 2e- = H2 + 2OH

Note—again in both of these reactions, the water evolves to a higher pH—less acidic, more basic.

Questions to consider: Does this mean that the change in pH of the oceans over geologic time is a fundamental marker indicating whether the surface Earth is becoming more or less oxidized?
So: if oceans are increasing in acidity—that means that the Earth is reducing (so ocean rxn is to oxidize). Or if oceans are decreasing in acidity—that means that the earth is oxidizing with time?  

As you consider this question, remember that CO2 is also a big player in the ocean-climate story, adjusting the pH and water chemistry.

In an upcoming post, I examine the hydrogen evolution reactions in some more detail.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Recent Visit to Mars

I had an opportunity to dig up old data & analysis on the Mars interior for a recent meeting. It was fun on many levels.

First, there’s the fascinating Mars interior with its huge transition zone. Is it drenched with water? Does it show evidence of compositional as well as structural changes? And Mars D double-prime (aka the core-mantle-boundary) is fun to ponder. A single measurement of the core radius will tell us whether there is a transition to perovskite at the bottom of the Martian mantle. A phase transition right at a huge chemical and (likely) thermal boundary layer is interesting—because it will either amplify or dampen instabilities—and therefore help govern dynamics. 

A single data point for the position of the Mars core-mantle boundary will tell us a huge amount about the thermal, mechanical, and chemical history of Mars.

Left: Earth interior density vs. pressure on a log-log scale, so the important parts (for Mars) are emphasized. Right: my preliminary Mars interior density model, based on Earth's, but with 1. low velocity zone removed and 2. increased density of mantle material, due to SNC meteorite constraints suggesting there's more iron in the Mars interior. Depending on the size of the core (which depends on sulfur content to fit mass and moment of inertia constraints), there is either a perovskite layer at the base of the mantle (small, iron-rich core) or not (larger, sulfur-containing core).
 The Mars transition zone is interesting also. On Earth, the transition zone is a relatively small sliver of the mantle, but it's interesting because the steep seismic velocity profile shows that the mineral assemblage is changing throughout this zone. Is it purely a structural evolution (SiO4 tetrahedra to SiO6 octahedra within the garnet) or is it compositional also (e.g. Fe changing? Mg/Si ratio changing?). On Mars, this mineral assemblage makes up the bulk of the lower mantle--and therefore a significant portion of the Mars interior. A measurement of the depth-dependent velocity of the transition zone will also tell us a lot about Earth and Mars.

A mineralogical model of the silicate mantle of the Earth (and Mars).
The minerals that make the transition zone: silicate spinels and garnets happen to be able to store a lot of water in their structures. Up to a percent or so. That's the rock equivalent of a wet sponge. So--if water can get down to the martian mantle, or if it was there and never left, there is the possibility that the Mars interior may store a huge amount of water relative to its surface, and relative to the amount the Earth's interior might store. This could be important for rheology, partial melting, and electrical conductivity. Water softens everything.

Then, there was digging through the old pictures of data collection at the synchrotron. My colleagues Dan and Wendy are there (were they both grad students then?) and a smiling Abby showing off her big baby-bump at the synchrotron. I think I might have been the first pregnant user at the APS, and people wearing ties came to discuss it with me and with the PI of the beamline. See I’m the only one wearing a dosimeter? They checked and rechecked every corner of the hutch with Geiger counters before my time started. I also worked while pregnant at the NSLS. The floor manager met with me before my time and said: it’s safe to go almost everywhere most anytime. Just don’t go near this area during insertion. (I forgot the exact, just remember the gist).

Dan Shim, Wendy Panero, and Abby Kavner  late 1998
The measurement was a high pressure and temperature phase stability and equation of state for FeS, the sulfur-rich endmember of our best guess of Martian core composition—likely along the iron-iron sulfide join. I analyzed the data, developed a model of the Martian interior, and wrote a draft of the paper during maternity while I was nursing my son.

The icing on the cake was that revisiting the science, the data, the history this week coincided with my son’s 15 birthday. So in parallel, I was able to reflect on 15 years as a mom-scientist. He’s thriving as he should, and my mom-heart overflows. My science-heart also pounds, but in different ways than it did 15 years ago. I am still a striver, but my definition of thriving is changing.

It's Alright to Cry

Dear students, colleagues, and others who cry in my office: Not a problem. I’m such a crier myself, I’m almost relieved when you join me. This is a situation I understand. Since my own personal threshold for crying is so low, I never assume that you are necessarily close to or at the end of your tether. Just that you are a person with emotions that you are able to express. I consider myself relatively fluent in the expression of emotions (except anger, which still confounds). Here are some of the emotions that make me cry: Sadness, frustration, anger, Feeling hurt by others, missing someone dear, physical pain, others' illness. Nostalgia. Bad news or sad news. Empathy. Hope Jahren’s blog posts. Crying children. Singing children. Newborn children. Nature. Competence. Good data and/or data analysis. Successful feats of engineering. Art and music.  When I’ve finished the last page of a good book.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Plate tectonics: 6th-grade curriculum notes

This figure is from a website distributing free science curricula. Coming up with a creative name for an already existing “plate” might be and creative, but it’s not science, and it’s nowhere close to what scientific creativity is like.

I will switcheroo the assignment, also for free.
Here is one way to present plate tectonics to 6th graders, with an emphasis on flexing the scientific creative muscle.
Map 1: Oceans & Continents, showing topography (height)

First look at map 1 (above).  Here is a map of the Earth’s surface showing the topography (height) of the continents and the ocean floor. Find approximately where you live on this map. Is there anything about what you see in the map that leads you to think that the Earth’s surface might consists of rigid crust (plates) that slide around on the surface?  Imagine that the Earth’s surface is divided into about ~12 major rigid plates that slide around on the surface. Based on what you see in the map, try to outline an entire plate.  
Map 2: Earthquake locations for Earthquakes 1963-2008

Now look at map 2: This is a similar map of the surface of the Earth, but the map shows only black or red dots where an earthquake happened between 1963 and 2008. Try to find where you live on this map. Why do you think earthquakes occur mostly along localized zones, and not evenly distributed across the world? Do the localized zones coincide with the boundary between oceans and continental crust? Does the plate outline that you drew on the top map coincide with what you see on the bottom map? Do you think seismologists might have been the scientists who discovered plate tectonics?*

*Hah! That last bit is not for the 6th grade curriculum. That’s just me taking another opportunity to make fun of seismologists!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Coaching not mentoring

At mine and others' academic institutions there is much discussion of mentoring to help junior faculty, but what we really need are a good coaches. A coach is a professional whose job is to help a person to be the best that they can be. Attaining excellence is not a one-person job. On the one hand it takes the entire university community. On the other hand a good coach can help.

I propose a coaching program.  Here’s one way for it to work:
Each year, in a competitive process, a handful of senior faculty are chosen to be coaches for that academic year. (approximately ~1 coach for every ~5 new assistant professors). The coaches take on ~5 or so “clients” to meet with once a week throughout the year. Junior faculty members (and others too can apply, space permitting) are automatically matched with a coach. The coach might be in a different department, but a similar division (i.e. physical sciences). All of the coaches meet quarterly for training, to share successes and failures, and to consider progress of the program in future years. Coaches receive a quarter of teaching release.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year’s Gratitudes

Only the usual new year resolution for me: to continue living life as fully and richly as I am able, not necessarily trying to avoid the usual fuck-ups but with more of a sense of security of self.

But new year’s gratitudes—those I have in abundance.

I am grateful for the entire flock of 14 yr old boys in the house last night, playing all the musical instruments, zooming around on skateboards in the garage, and devouring almost everything in the fridge and pantry.

I am grateful for my nuclear family—my happy childhood, my multiple parents and their adventures, and my own nuclear family: my husband and our son and our happiness and adventures. I am grateful for my sister’s family and my miraculous nephew.

I am grateful for the many miraculous people in my life from the inner circles of those I love to the outer circles of those I don’t know personally: my girlfriends, the kids my son went to daycare with and their parents, the department grad students, the colleagues who can make me smile and think at the same time, R. Spektor who created the soundtrack to last year’s derivations; L. Rennison whose silly kid-books made me laugh all last winter, the ones who grow, pick, & roast my coffee, and the new butcher in Santa Monica.
I am grateful for the ability to continue striving to be the best scientist I can be.

I am grateful for the mile between my home and the Pacific Ocean. Perfect for my daily walk to watch the people watching the sunset. As we watch the sun sink down, I meditate on the Earth tumbling forward in space and I am grateful for Earth’s rotation.