Words of Wisdom for Young Chemists

A few weeks ago I was part of a call for suggestions for undergraduates students in chemistry.  While this list specifically addresses chemistry, I think these suggestions are relevant across many fields.  Take a look!

An Open Letter to an Undergraduate Chemistry Student


Reading Comprehension Test

In honor of science in the media, I would like to share Scientific American’s science survey for the presidential candidates. Unfortunately, Gary Johnson’s campaign has not yet replied, but if they do the answers will likely be added into this article.

As you read the answers provided, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What does this answer have to do with the question posed?

2. What is the evidence for the claims made, if any?

3. Is a longer answer inherently a better answer?

I’d love to see some discussion based on this survey!  What do you think?  Which is your favorite answer, and which is your “favorite” answer, if you get my drift?

On Family – Part 2: In Defense of the “Ignorant”

I would like to discuss the importance of family support, and in the spirit of this blog, the additional importance of recognizing those who lack this support and helping them along their journey.

I thought of this entry over the weekend, as I listened to a young científica tell a story about how her mother, a small-town lady, had tried to catch a lizard to add to her insect collection. The girl explained the difference between lizards and insects to her mother, and was laughing about the story, and I had to smile to myself. It would be easy to think on the mother’s naivety, or criticize and roll my eyes at her apparent lack of scientific education. But instead, all that I could think about was how a parent was trying to support her daughter’s entry into the scientific world. She might not have contributed in a way the daughter could use, but she *did* contribute – so excited to help her daughter’s journey that she was attempting to catch lizards for her!

If you have ever caught lizards, you know this is often a challenge.

I’ve reflected many times over the past few weeks on our fellow scientists, both men and women, who lack this kind of support. It is a position that I cannot relate to emotionally, as my family are all loving, supportive and proud of my achievements in life, even if they don’t agree with some of my decisions – but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the need to bouy these people up. It is sometimes easy for me to forget that my situation is in many ways unique – I have a loving family, and two parents who love me unconditionally, as I am, and supported me daily, even if they didn’t understand what I was doing.

Pay close attention to those around you. Many in our field may have not only faced troubles in their journey, but from home as well. Lift them up as you lift yourself up. We are all related by science, after all!

On Family: Part 1 – Sharing IS Caring

There has been quite a delay between my last post and this.  As you read, the reason will become clear.  This entry is going to be extremely personal and discuss the difficulty of loss, and for that I apologize upfront.  This topic is a two-parter because there is a story and additional thoughts I would like to share, and I will do so separate from this post.

Both of my parents are generous, loving people, and as such are generous with their love. This is how, over the course of my life, I have come to call quite a few people my brothers and sisters, even though we are not related by blood and in many cases haven’t lived in the same state (or even country) for years. I am fortunate in my family, both immediate and extended, and I am grateful every day for the family I was given to.

While my mother is supportive of me, my father is the one who loved the sciences. He was always extremely excited to hear about whatever new protocol I’d learned, or discover new techniques and machines with me. I brought him pamphlets that explained how some of the extremely high tech machines at work function and he gobbled up the literature. I sent him my scientific papers so that he could read about what I was doing, and every day would find something new to share with him as I continue my journey into the sciences.

My father passed away last month. Stubborn to the end, he went in exactly the way he wanted, by his choice: surrounded by family, quietly and peacefully in his sleep.

The first day I returned to work after he passed, we had a demonstration with a machine that I had been telling him about nearly every day, and I had been excited to take pictures and show him the actual machine, and explain what it did. There were quite a few times when he, an industrial engineer, looked me in the eye and said, “that sounds like magic!”

The next day back I listened in on a meeting while new approaches were discussed and hashed out, ideas and science that I couldn’t wait to tell him about, and the week following I went to an amazing conference where I learned all sorts of new information that I was excited to get his feedback on.

Obviously, I could not share these things with him in person. It makes science both exhilirating and difficult. As time continues I catch myself less during the day, as I encounter something else which draws the immediate reaction of “Dad will love this,” followed by a quiet personal reminder.

While losing my father has been a difficult adjustment, I am grateful beyond words that I was able to share my journey with him.  My final meal with him was a dinner to celebrate my having gotten into the PhD program I wanted.  His support gave me strength, and it’s the kind of strength that I hope to pass along to others as they start, continue on or end this wonderful thing we call scientific discovery.

So my advice, fellow científicas, is this: share the love you have of the sciences with someone close to you, often and without inhibition.  They may not know how you do what you do, but they will appreciate your willingness to share, and you will brighten their day when you tell them the “magic” you do every day.

And hug the ones you love the most as often as you can. You never know when you might not be able to again.

Crossing the Bridge Between Art and Science

Yesterday I met a woman who majored in theater. She then went on to get her PhD in nuclear physics. She introduced herself as one of the few extroverts in her building. I was so excited to hear her background, I nearly missed the rest of the tour.

Let me explain.

My first degree is in English, and my second is in microbiology. When I tell people this, I nearly always get the following reaction:

“Wow, that’s quite the switch!”

It’s an interesting reaction to me. The arts and the sciences are considered completely opposite fields – an odd consideration, seeing as many universities actually combine the two into one “arts and sciences” college. The two I attended certainly did, and it’s a common practice to refer to the arts and sciences together. And yet there were science students who felt deeply that the arts majors couldn’t possibly be doing hard work, while the arts majors often simply allow that science education is “harder.” I’m not going to argue that interpreting Chaucer is as challenging as computational science, but ask yourself – could you do it, and do it well? Would you understand the historical context of the work, and where the sarcasm and seriousness separate, without training and linguistics?

Think about all of the authors, actors and musicians who have a scientific education, or the various scientists who also produce art, either on the side or in their work. Music is known to improve a student’s performance in math. Teachers use tracing, coloring, model-building and music to teach science and math (My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas – anyone remember what that’s for?) There’s an inherent connection between the arts and sciences, and they are less divided so much as different ends of the same spectrum. A different skill-set might be required for the ultimate output, but consider:

In science you generate, analyze and interpret data to discover what it means (conclusion). In the arts, you generate, analyze and interpret a piece of art to discover what it means (symbolism). You determine patterns, and in many cases may see patterns that no one else can without intense scrutiny.

In both areas, there are intense debates over the true meaning of data/artwork, and many will consistently point out that one interpretation does not mean that no other interpretations are possible.

Is the Hubble photograph of hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies not art because it was taken by a satellite instead of directly by a human hand? Does the Cosmos series not contain scientific information because it won four Emmys?

Having majored in both, I see the similarities more clearly than I see the differences.

The Will to Live

Male coworker:  You look really nice today!

Me:  Thank you!

Male coworker:  Yeah, normally you look like you’ve given up the will the live.

He then explained how I managed to look that way, including such crimes as putting my hair up in a bun while working in the lab.  Of course, this coworker wears the same ratty sweatshirt every day.

Random Words of Encouragement

I used to work in a corporate financial job before joining the sciences.  I graduated once with a degree which served me well, but I realized that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, so I went back to school for a second degree.  It took 4 years of student loans and 2-3 simultaneous jobs, but I did it.

This matters for this story because I recently had a doctor’s appointment for a new position, and part of the paperwork involved filling out my academic and employment history.

The doctor came into the office and said, “Well you know this is for employment so we’ll get to your medical history…but really I’m more interested in your history history.  I said to myself, I need to meet this woman and ask her about her life.”

I told him about my decision and how I realized I was on the wrong path, and so I went back to school for a second major in a different field.  The rest of the visit continued as usual.  When all was said and done, the doctor said to me:

“I just want you to know that your story, that you realized you were on the wrong path and then decided to change it – I find that very courageous, and I admire you for it.”

Great start to a great day!

Words of Wisdom from One Who Knows

These are some general guidelines for those thinking of graduate school, especially PhD programs, from a fellow científica who has been there and wants to encourage future científicas.  Please share generously!

  • Get as much as you can in writing.  Focus on your timeline, and set a graduation date goal.
  • Confirm resources – if you’re told something will be available, try to confirm that this is true!
  • Will you need to apply for grants?  How long will any current funding last?
  • If you’re supposed to analyze data, make sure the data is present!
  • If there is travel for conferences or research, is funding for travel part of the budget or would you be expected to cover the cost?
  • Contact former students of the PI you’re considering and talk to them about their experiences, and any advice they might have.
  • Check on the average number of papers, patents and collaborations the PI is involved in on an annual basis.
  • Remember that your PI will serve as your mentor and advocate.
  • Consider the course load versus research time, and make sure it’s something you can realistically manage.

Any other advice you’d like to offer to our fellow científicas?  Please share in the comments, or submit advice of your own!

My House is Bigger than Yours

A contributor would like to talk about supporting young or struggling científicas for a moment:

I was chatting with a colleague about finances, and she made a nasty comment about how I save money by living with my parents.  This person did not know me or my personal situation, so I had the opportunity to explain a few things to her.

On the one hand,  it was immensely satisfying to watch embarrassment and chagrin slowly dawn on her face as I informed her that not only do I not live with my parents, but I own my home and pay a mortgage and property taxes.

On the other, if this had been true, why exactly was this something to call me out over?  I would hope that in the current economy and job market, a young person choosing to save money and maintain household stability would be supported and understood, rather than looked down on.  A young científica just starting out in the field might not have a choice, or want to focus on saving money and/or paying down their student debt as they begin to build their CV.  I would applaud a decision to save money and/or decrease debt!

What’s worse, this assumption hinges on the person making no financial contributions to the household.  Many parents will make arrangements and ask for rent, or for help with food costs and bills.

Remember:  provide encouragement and support for our young científicas!

As a final thought:  I can only hope that my colleague’s experience taught her not to belittle someone for their living arrangements,  which after all are really none of her business!