Monday, February 28, 2011

Lab work as a meditation

This weekend I had a student working in the lab with me. He seemed interested in the project initially, went out and collected the samples himself, came to my lab to run them and then seemed bored out of his mind the entire time he was here.

I know sequential extractions cannot be described as a non-stop thrill-ride adventure, but I have to say that I really enjoy working in the lab. That’s quite a statement for a former field geologist to make, I think. Don’t get me wrong; I still love hanging off the sides of cliffs and starting out over a vast plain from the top of a mountain. There is a unique beauty, peace, solitude, and perspective that field work brings.

Lab work has a different vibe to it. Whether it’s picking grains for analysis or performing a sequential extraction, there is a beauty to the slow methodical rhythm of lab work. Pipetting liquids from one tube to another doesn’t sound like a serene experience, but it really is. It forces me to focus on the moment, the way my hands are moving, getting the pipette as close to the sediment interface as possible without touching it. There is little room for all the other stresses in my life. Without those stressors cluttering my mind, I find myself more prone to joy and deep satisfaction with my life.

I also find that moments of clarity are easier to come by in these routine lab bench moments. The majority of my consciousness if focused on doing the job at hand, but part of it has uncluttered time to think. In these long lab work days, I find I can focus on one issue at a time that needs dealt with.  It has made me realize that for me lab work can have the same emotional/mental/spiritual effect as my tai chi practice.

 I wonder if all scientists feel this way or if lab work is something you have to get through on your way to something else (i.e. publication).  I wonder what I can do to explain or share with students the intrinsic power of laboratory meditation or if it is something people have to find out for themselves. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Graduate School: What happens if you get shown the door. Part 2

Part 2: So you don't think your graduate student is working out, now what?

***DISCLAIMER: For the record, I am not a faculty member, so this post is an opinion based on my years working in industry.***

Not every person you hire is going to be a great fit with your company or your brand. It happens. Some people look great on paper when they aren't. Some people are really nice and would be a great fit in some one else's company, but they just don't fit with yours. The reasons people get fired run the gambit from personal to professional reasons depending on federal, state, and local laws. The real question is: what do you do when things aren't working out?

The first thing you need to do is stay calm. The graduate student-advisor relationship can be stressful on both sides. You've invested in this person and things aren't going as planned. It can be every bit as stressful as being a parent. This is why calm has to be the first order of the day. You need to separate your feelings about the person from his or her performance. Sometimes writing things down helps clarify things. If nothing else, it will help you clarify whether the issues can be resolved.

Secondly, let your student know early on in the process where they stand. Most graduate students want to be successful. Letting them know where they are doing well and where they need to improve can be beneficial. My current advisors are really amazing in giving us yearly evaluations and usually we have an end of semester sit-down where we talk about what worked, what didn't, and benchmark goals for the next semester. When things go poorly, we all talk about it right away and get things back on track. When they go really well, we celebrate and I walk away feeling like I can conquer the next step we've laid out. Under no circumstances should you just pretend your student doesn't exist until you fire them. It's a waste of your money and both parties time.

This leads into my third point: Keep it professional. At some level, graduate school is an apprenticeship and the graduate student does need to be evaluated. This is an evaluation of his/her performance, not who they are as a human being. Personal attacks and discussion of personal life (except where it bridges into professional life) are off-limits. It doesn't matter if you think your graduate student is a horrible excuse for a human being or whom your graduate student is dating/sleeping with, unless it is relevant to their position as a graduate student or TA. 

If you have a problem with your student, talk to your student about it. I knew a faculty member who had huge divisions in his lab group because he would tell his favorite students all about the students he didn't like as well. These favorite students would then tell other people and it would eventually get back to the student who was the subject of the gossip. I told my current advisors when they hired me that I expected that if they had a problem with me, I would hear about it from them directly and not anyone else. I respect them because they have always come to me directly when I've made a mistake.

Most importantly, providing feedback early and often is really positive for you and for your graduate student. When I failed my comps the first time due to anxiety issues, my advisors told me to write them a one page corrective action plan that I would follow over the next semester to address the issue. It was enormously helpful, because I had an opportunity to figure out what went wrong and how to fix things. I laid out goals, including mini-comps with my advisors, that helped me get used to speaking in front of people. I got help from people on campus as well. I still was nervous the second time around, but I was able to hold it together enough to pass and I knew that I had done everything I could to fix my problem. If I hadn't, well, they could have shown me my plan, how I didn't follow it, and I wouldn't have been able to blame them if they booted me. I think this is the way things should work.

I am stressed out like most graduate students, but I admit that having advisors who run the personnel end of the lab like a company has really been a blessing. I feel more confident because I know where I stand. When I got booted from my previous PhD attempt, it was a bolt out of the blue. I never knew my advisor was unhappy with me until it was too late to do anything about it. I really don't think I have become more brilliant in the years between being kicked out of school and coming back. I think having great advisors who understand the mentoring process was what I needed to be successful. They aren't perfect and there are things I would do differently, but they have been just great. I also have a great committee who has been there every step of the way with me too.

Of course there are exceptions to these guidelines, like academic misconduct. That is a whole other ball of wax. Most universities have defined rules on how such incidents are handled. This is why I did not touch on such behaviors. I feel like the guidelines I have written are more for instances that are more routine such as when your student is slacking, or has an issue like anxiety, etc.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Graduate School: What happens if you get shown the door.

Every graduate student fears being voted off the graduate school island. There are always vague rumors of people who have been down that road. It is almost always implied, if not directly stated, that whatever happened was 100% the graduate student’s fault and that it was because s/he was a horrible excuse for a graduate student and perhaps even a human being.

This week, a dear friend, a brilliant friend, was voted off the island. He’s crushed. I can’t blame him, since I was once voted off the graduate student island myself.  It was one of the most soul crushing moments of my life and something that I have never talked about in great detail with anyone except my husband. Hearing my friend relate his experience to me brought back the conversation I had with my old advisor several years ago. It made me realize that some of the things I have struggled with this second go-around at the PhD are a direct result of how I feel about myself as a result of that horrible, horrible day when I was voted off the island. The words from my old advisor’s lips are things I need to move beyond. That is harder than it sounds. I have thought that maybe describing my experiences will help me move beyond this and help my friend understand he isn’t alone. I thought I would break my thoughts into a couple of different posts to address both the advisor and the student side of this issue.

Part 1: What you’ll feel right after the break-up w/ your advisor

The very first thing you have to remember, should the worst happen, is that you are still a good person. It sounds cliché, but when you are told to pack sand by your advisor, it’s hard to remember that you are a valuable human being, graduate degree or no. All I had ever wanted was to be a geology professor, so when I was told “your passion isn’t enough” and that I wasn’t any good as a scientist, I was devastated. Like my friend, it happened early enough in the semester that I couldn’t just skulk off into that good night. I had to show up to my classes the next day. When you feel like a worthless human being, it is hard to get out of bed and shower, let alone go to class.

This desire to dissolve into a wall somewhere is intensified in graduate school, because most departments are more gossipy than most high schools. Everyone seems to know everyone’s business and depending on how discreet you, your advisor and/or the faculty is, the news may or may not spread like wildfire. Once is does, everyone seems to start treating you differently, more distantly, maybe questioning your performance in other areas. It compounds the depression and worse still, makes you question your judgment about yourself, your career and whatever was said when the break-up between you and your advisor occurred. Whatever you do, do not give into the depression and do not assume that perception is reality. There are still a lot of people who think well of you and are willing to help you into a soft landing. You need to keep putting in the effort to make this a reality.
The first couple of days are going to be the worst, so give yourself some time to grieve, because you will grieve. Do not make all of your life’s decisions in this time.  Once you are feeling better, it is time to polish your resume. Every school has career services, so you should check with them for help if you need it. Then, you will need to look for a job. It’s important to find/create a positive spin on what happened. I happened to have been dealing with a breast cancer scare when I was shown the door. That wasn’t the whole reason, but it is a solid sympathetic reason for leaving my old job (graduate school) was key in getting a new job. Take your resume and shop it around. Ask people in the department if they can help you and if you are interested in environmental, contact Aerotek Engineering. They do a lot of environmental recruiting and I’ve always had good luck with them. Find a space where you can envision this as a positive step in your life and go get that job. Remember, the best revenge is living well.

Then, once you know you’ve secured a roof over your head and food on your table, you need to take time to evaluate what happened. Some proportion of being fired IS your fault. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. Recognizing your own mistakes and changing is vital to overcoming this setback, especially if you want to make a second academic run later. That said, it is NOT ALL your fault. Some proportion of what went wrong was likely beyond your control. Recognizing that other factors played a role in your setback will help you accept what happened and maintain a positive self-image. Sometimes the advisor is part of the problem. Sometimes financial, health or other factors may have played into the situation. These are not your fault.

Ultimately, I found that leaving graduate school was a good experience for me. I don’t like to talk about it, because I do worry that people will still view me as a loser. That’s  my problem. Honestly, working 8-5 at a couple of good companies with good people gave me an opportunity to see that I am a good scientist. I learned how to manage my time better. I learned to be happier. When I came back to graduate school the second time, as worried as I was that old advisor was right, each success showed me that I wasn’t that person and I didn’t have to accept anyone’s opinion of me as gospel. Getting fired from graduate school ultimately made me a better graduate student and employee.

I don't expect that everyone has had the same experience I have had and I welcome any comments about how you have dealt with being fired as a graduate student and how you made your come back.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Science Baby Steps: What can we learn from a sitting outside?

I want to start writing about easy science inquiries and activities parents can do with kids, but I feel that before I can do that, I have to address the ins and outs of embracing a scientific mindset. To that end, I am going to try to write a series of science baby steps to help share some of the things that I think help me as a scientist.

For the past two years I have been an NSF GK-12 fellow. Each of those years our fellowship advisor and a few of the School of Education faculty put on a Middle School Science Academy for local middle school teachers. Some of these teachers then work with the GK-12 fellows over the course of the following year after the academy.
One of the first activities for the teachers is to go outside, find a shady spot and write 50 questions about what they see. After about 15-25 questions, people start getting frustrated and that's when the magic happens, because Brad Williamson pulls a leaf off of a tree and asks them to think about it. The questions just begin to pour out of them.

A ginko leaf.

This lesson has taught me two very important things. First, good questions often result from changing the scale or scope of observation. Second, when we engage in scientific inquiry, we are brought back to that magical time in childhood when we asked questions about everything. Why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? Why do trees grow up, instead of sideways? Everything was magical and therefore open to question, observe, touch, play with and enjoy.
When most people think of scientists they think of us as stodgy white men in lab coats carrying on about some obscure principle. After two years of watching and participating in the middle school science academy, I have come to view scientists like myself as children still caught in that magical time where we feel free to push the limits of everything.
This week the weather in the Midwest is warming up. The snow will melt. The sun will shine. It's a perfect time to shake off the doldrums of winter and step outside, find a quiet spot and reconnect with the kid inside all of us who is free to dream, imagine, and most importantly, question everything around us.
The first step in being a scientist is to let your mind explore all the things you normally pass without truly observing or interacting with them and be open to all the questions that those observations bring, even if you don't know or can't find the answers to them. Some of those questions will capture your imagination and you'll keep thinking about them. That is what thinking like a scientist is like.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why twitter is an awesome tool for scientists

I am so thoroughly excited by social media. It has literally opened up a whole new world of science for me. I learn so much by perusing people's blogs, their tweets, and retweets by scientists they know. It's kind of amazing.
I was trying to explain this to my Dad, a non-scientist, last night on the phone. Twitter is the new town square in some regards. Now my Dad is getting a twitter account, so he can follow all of my new science friends.
In addition to that, I have made new friends and acquaintances on Twitter. These people are catalysts for all kinds of good ideas, because they answer questions I ask or throw ideas out there that I can run with. One important twitter relationship I have developed is with @Colo_kea. She helped me prepare my blog design and first post, which was a massive help. Another is @ugrandite who has been a huge help with all sorts of random questions and problems I have. She's my cheering section. I think I may talk to these two more than I see my advisor (He has a lab group of 14 people, so I am not criticizing him).
I've gotten lots of good advice about my career from these ladies and @ArmedwScience who gave me the low down on American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellowships. He also gave me the idea, albeit indirectly, to contact AAAS and see if they could have one of their fellows chat with the members of our NSF GK-12 fellowship when we are in DC for a conference next month. I can't believe that AAAS took me seriously when I tweeted them and asked them about the possibility. I am really excited that they seem interested in spending some time with our graduate students. This is especially important because I am considering applying for an AAAS fellowship when I graduate. Honestly, if it weren't for Twitter's ability to reduce the activation energy required to make contact with people, I am not sure I would have had the ability to put this together in a matter of days. It's really exciting.
I know there are a lot of scientists out there who see social media as a waste of time. I guess, I hope that in writing this, I might convince one scientist out there to take a chance on social media. There is real value in social media tools when you use them correctly, both for scientists and non-scientists alike. Soon @ugrandite, @armedwscience, and @colo_kea will be followed by my Dad, a non-scientist who is interested in all the cool stories I tell him about my science and the scientists I meet in this global marketplace. Then these wonderful people will be able to reach out and inspire him, the way they inspire me and that is the real power of social media. We can reach out and interact with all sorts of people we might never otherwise intersect and thus create ideas that otherwise might go unarticulated.