Conferencing with an infant

I went to the ACS Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting (MARM) at the beginning of June, and, since she’s still nursing and refuses to take a bottle, Sweet Pea came along. My husband did not. The conference was Sunday to Tuesday, and he wasn’t able to take Monday and Tuesday off. Sweet Pea has a wonderful daycare, but we still don’t have a babysitter, and arranging family to babysit was a challenge because of distance and scheduling. So I just took her along and spent three days solo parenting.

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All work and no play

I spent the fall semester on maternity leave. My daughter arrived in August, a new and wondrous source of joy in my life. I needed weeks to recover physically from the stresses of childbirth, and months to figure out what my life looks like with another little person in it. The first few times the three of us (my baby, my husband and I) left the house, it felt like an endeavor. The first time I took Sweet Pea out on my own was a monumental challenge. With time and practice, it’s all gotten easier. You can get used to almost anything if you do it enough – like wake up in the middle of the night every night for months.

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Academic Time-Savers: Text Entry on a Mac

Meghan Duffy tweeted a CHE article by Anne Curzan about using (or overusing) em dashes, which led a few folks on Twitter to point out ways to type a true em dash (— instead of --, for example). On an iOS device, you can simply press and hold the hyphen to get a pop-up list of other dashes. On a Mac, you can hold the shift and option keys (some know option as the alt key) while typing a hyphen. But you have to remember which key combo to press, and if your habit is to type --, it can take a long time to get used to Shift+Option+-.

Making your own shortcuts

If you don’t want to relearn the keys you’re pressing, you don’t have to. You can make your own shortcut so that when you type -- it becomes —. The best part of this trick is that it applies well beyond em dashes. You can use text shortcuts like this one to save yourself time in all kinds of ways.

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Identity change

When I got married, I changed my last name. I was very attached to my maiden name, and couldn’t bear to let go of it completely, so I dropped what had been my middle name, took my maiden name for my new middle name, and finished off my new signature with my husband’s last name. 

I’ve been Mrs. (and now, Dr.) Haas for about seven years. I’m content with my name change choice. I’m content with the way my identity has changed.

Now it’s changing again.

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Molecular tug-of-war: A hands-on demonstration of molecular polarity

Last fall I taught polarity in a different order than I have before. In every previous class, I introduced polarity in the VSEPR unit: first bond polarity, and then molecular polarity immediately after. Instead, last semester, I introduced bond polarity after Lewis structures and tried to get the students in the habit of identifying polar bonds and drawing dipole moments for those bonds alongside their Lewis structures. Then, after working through VSEPR theory, we brought polarity back into the mix. Anecdotally, they seemed to have a better sense of which bonds were and were not polar in the 3D molecules than my previous classes. (I don't know that the order of topics improved their understanding. I suspect it's simply a matter of having had more time to "digest" the idea and practice it more in 2D before moving to 3D.)


Even though they were quite good at identifying polar bonds, the students still had trouble identifying polar molecules. Specifically, they used the simple rule of thumb that if the bonds were polar, the molecule had to be polar, which fails when the symmetry of a molecule is such that the polar bonds all cancel out (e.g. BF3 or CF4).

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Where does it end?

I listened to some of the inaugural episode of "Late Night with Chemjobber" last night. As a whole, I think it was a decent start. There were some technical issues (the audio cut out several times), some glitches (at one point Chemjobber accidentally hung up on the callers), and I get the feeling that nobody involved was practiced at radio or podcasting. All of that was understandable. For the most part, the topics were interesting or amusing, and (after a little dancing about deciding who should respond first) generated good discussions. I have one bone to pick with the show, though, and it's a big one: significant air time was given to a troll. 

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A Lab Notebook for Teaching

Chemists are trained to use lab notebooks, whether paper or digital, to record their observations, measurements and preliminary conclusions. Good lab notebooks include not just what you tried, but why you tried it and even what expectations you had for the outcome. Lab notebooks are a record; reading over previous entries can help you notice patterns and plan future experiments. Someone else should be able to read your notebook and understand what, why & how you did everything. Ideally, they could reproduce your work with that knowledge.

Teaching involves a lot of experimentation: choosing examples, refining explanations, developing ways to address misconceptions, rearranging the order of topics, yet few professors I know keep a teaching notebook, even among scientists who would surely defend the importance of a notebook in lab.

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Guilty

Geoff Marcy recently resigned from Berkeley after word got out that he’d been a serial sexual harasser of women in astronomy, that a Berkeley investigation concluded he had violated campus conduct policies, that the university had barely even slapped his wrist for it, and that the women in astrophysics (and the rest of the sciences) were sick of this same old crap.

Okay then. One down, more to go.

Marcy is not the last harasser. His resignation does not mark the eradication of this disease. There are more creeps out there. There are more people making science and unwelcome place. We’re not done.

Hearing about Marcy, his misdeeds, and his shield of privileges and achievements, I was reminded of another creep, one I could have called out, but didn’t. I feel guilty hearing about these cases. I know of sexual harassment in science that has gone unreported. Am I, by staying silent, complicit?

I will tell you the story, but I am not prepared to name names. I am not the victim, and I have no wish to bring her unwanted attention. I wasn’t even present when it happened, but when a person tells you of her harassment, you’d better believe her. It’s been over a year, but that doesn’t make his actions any less wrong.

Last year at a conference I attended, a graduate student, who I’ll call Annie, was groped by a senior professor, who I’ll call Jack. It was the last night of a week-long conference. There was a party, with dancing and booze. Jack was on the dance floor. Annie walked by him, and he grabbed her butt. As Annie’s companions emphasized, this was not a case of “accidentally” bumping into or brushing up against someone. This was a middle-aged man grabbing a young woman in a clearly sexual way. Annie and her companions left the party immediately, unwilling to risk more time in an unwelcome space.

I heard about the incident moments later from Annie and the other junior scientists (grad students & post-docs) who had seen it happen. My initial response was shock: He did what?! My next thought was discouragement and disappointment. It had been a pretty great week: I’d learned about exciting science, had some great conversations, and met some delightful people. But Jack’s inability to keep his hands to himself tarnished my impression of the conference. And – even though it didn’t happen to me, and I hadn’t been in the room – it made me feel unwelcome.

We didn’t report Jack. We talked about it, the group of us. Who would we tell? Jack wasn’t just an attendee; he chaired the conference. The best we could foresee was one of our advisors just saying ‘steer clear.’ So we said nothing. The conference was over, anyway. What was the harm?

The harm is that Annie is almost certainly not the first woman Jack has grabbed. She probably won’t be the last. Annie and Jack are at different institutions in different cities, but we’re all in the same field. We’re likely to cross paths again. Even if those of us who know about his harassment of Annie warn others away, Jack just becomes another open secret.

Jack made our group feel unwelcome at the conference party. Who else is he pushing out? What if Jack is harassing women in his own department? Who is listening to them?

You might say “It’s not so bad. He just grabbed her butt, it’s not like he really did any damage.” Except it is that bad. Someone is getting pushed out every time. And it’s damaging for every single woman. It shouldn’t have to take four women multiple years to get a man to keep his hands to himself.

Jack has a name, and a home department, and a publication list as long as my arm. Jack has a reputation and a position of privilege that far outweighs mine, or Annie’s. I can’t fight that battle right now, even though I feel guilty for letting another creep skate by. So the guilt buzzes in my ear when I hear these stories, and it reminds me that I need to do better next time – and that, sadly, there is likely to be a next time.

What are my words worth?

I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve written, but I haven’t shared much, and the reasons why have a lot to do with Impostor Syndrome.

I am very good at convincing myself that everyone else knows what I know. This line of (faulty) reasoning leads me to believe I have nothing new to contribute. Though I often encounter evidence to the contrary, it is a habit of thinking I tend to fall into.

Recently, some colleagues and I got talking on the topic of classroom ‘tricks’ for things like getting student to do assigned reading and encouraging participation in class. I mentioned some things I’ve tried and things I’ve considered trying but haven’t tested yet. My colleagues weren’t familiar with these ideas. They asked for more details, and I was happy to share what I knew, but I was also surprised: how could I, the “newbie,” know things they didn’t? They have more experience than I, surely I should be learning from them?

I recognize, of course, that my colleagues and I have had different experiences. My students teach me new things all the time, and I think nothing of it. But then, although I am often surprised by my greater knowledge than someone else, I’m rarely surprised by my comparative ignorance. This realization bothers me.

If someone offers me help, I am grateful, but if I provide help to others, de nada. It’s nothing. Somehow, I am in the habit of sabotaging myself: I undervalue my own knowledge, expertise and efforts, as if my thoughts, opinions, and ideas are somehow less worthy than those of the people I encounter, so I’d better keep them to myself so nobody else can know how inferior I am.

This is not a productive line of thinking.

So. A new resolution of sorts. I am going to keep posting here. Maybe you, dear reader, already know everything I will say. But maybe you don’t, and I have the pleasure of sharing these things I have learned with you. And maybe I will learn to keep sharing and stop measuring myself against the giants I see and imagine around me.

Seeing the syllabus from the other side

I didn't appreciate syllabi when I was a college student. Professors handed out papers of dates and requirements, which they read to us. We stuffed those papers into folders, tucked them in the end pages of our notebooks, or just dropped them in the circular file. Before college I'd never seen a syllabus – we didn't use that term in high school – so it seemed like just another handout, just another piece of paper.

Somewhere along the way I realized that the list of important dates might actually be a useful thing to hang onto and refer back to throughout the semester. The syllabus-readers usually had a leg up on the non-syllabus readers when it came time for projects: we knew they were coming! It was old news for us.

But I still didn't really appreciate those oft-ignored papers until I made one. 

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Plans I wish I didn't need to make

Whenever I'm going to teach in a new classroom, I like to scout it out ahead of time. I want to know if it has a chalkboard or a whiteboard so I can bring the right writing implements. I want to make sure it has enough seats for my class because the classroom capacity according to the registrar and the number of chairs actually present in the room may be quite different. I want to get a sense of the room: find out if it has chair desks or tables, whether late arrivals will disrupt class from the front or sneak in the back, and what the projector situation is. I also like to know that I can just plain find the room! If I can, I go inside and just stand in the front, getting used to the size of the space and the arrangement of the chairs. I like to do this for public speaking, too – I can get over whatever anxiety the foreignness of the room might give me and be more at ease in the now-familiar space when the time comes to talk.

Last week I wandered around campus getting to know the buildings and tracking down the classrooms I'm scheduled to teach in. But I didn't just count the chairs, or decide whether I'll need chalk or dry erase markers. I noted which rooms had furniture that could be piled against the door, which way the doors opened, which rooms had windows into the hallway, and which exits to use if I had to protect my students from a gunman. 

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Removing a broken microSD card from a Garmin nüvi 1450

I really like to take electronics apart and put them back together again. I don’t usually tinker with working electronics, but when something is broken, I enjoy the attempts to fix it. This little project took a some internet searching, a new set of tools, and some on-the-fly problem solving. I didn’t find a complete answer anywhere else online, so I’m posting my solution for the benefit of whoever else may be searching for a fix.

The problem

On her previous visit, my mother-in-law brought us her Garmin nüvi 1450 GPS box, asking if we could remove a microSD card that was stuck in the card reader slot. She had put the card in the wrong way around, but then she couldn’t get it back out. She had apparently tried to use tweezers or pliers—and eventually a table knife—to pull or pry the card out of the slot. The result was a card that wasn’t just stuck, but fully jammed into the slot, with a broken-off end. Only a short nub stuck out, hardly enough to grab onto. The opening to the card reader slot is slightly recessed in the body, so even tweezers had a hard time reaching enough of the nub to get a good pull. I decided to take the case off to get a better reach.

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Convincing myself of my competence

My shiny new tenure-stream job terrifies me. Just thinking about it gives me a creeping case of Impostor Syndrome. This fall I will teach a course I've never taught before, and I'll be a PI for the first time. The fraidy-cat part of me insists that I can't do it because I've never done it. When I can separate myself from my anxiety, it looks like a classic case of cognitive dissonance: I insist my students can learn to do new and difficult things, but somehow I feel incapable of doing the same.

Last night a tornado siren pulled me from sleep. When the warning cleared, I stared at the ceiling arguing with myself, unafraid of the passing storm, but frightened of the future.

There's so much I need to do! I don't know how to do any of it!

You can ask. You can learn. You don't have to do everything at once and you don't have to do it on your own.

I'm not really an analytical chemist. I'm in way over my head. I don't know what to teach.

You told them you could teach analytical because you have experience with analytical methods, and that will be enough. You can use your experiences to show students how analytical and the other chemistry disciplines are interrelated. There are plenty of resources for teaching ideas; you don't have to make it all from scratch. Follow the textbook to start. Check out the syllabus they've already used. Go through your old class notes and see what's worth keeping, skipping or rearranging. Ask for suggestions. It's just like the first time you taught any other course.

But I don't know how to run the instrumentation lab.

You know how to run instruments, you know how to scrounge up manuals, and nearly every instrument has some expert out there who can answer your questions. You've done that part before in every previous lab; it's no different when you're the one in charge. Besides, even if you were an expert at using every type of instrument, your colleagues would still know more about the specific models in the lab than you.

But what if I break something? What if I don't know how to use an instrument? What if I make a mistake? They'll find out I'm a fraud.

If you break something, you'll get it fixed. If you don't know how, you can learn. You're always telling your students that it's okay to make mistakes because you can learn from them; set a good example. You're not a fraud, you're a newbie. Nobody knows everything, nobody is perfect, and it's silly to pretend otherwise.

What if I can't get published or funded?

Rejection is more likely than acceptance. It's normal. You'll just have to keep trying. And revising. And asking for feedback.

What if I don't get tenure?

Then you'll have had an awesome post-doc and you'll go find another job. It's not the end of the world.

But I'm really not good enough at any of this to do a decent job.

Your new colleagues think you're qualified. Your reference-letter writers think you're qualified. The administration at your previous position thinks you're qualified. Your chemistry friends think you're qualified. In short, people whose professional opinions you respect think you're qualified. There is no sensible reason to reject the evidence that you might, in fact, be qualified to do this job.

Okay, self. Thanks for the pep-talk.

Some thoughts about crying

Reset your "days since a sexism-in-science incident" counters to zero. A Nobel laureate dug himself a pretty deep and boggy hole when, among other things, he explained why he thought men and women shouldn't be in labs together. Apparently, the womenz are just too irresistible and men "fall in love with them," but women also cry too much.

Much digital ink has already been spilled on the many things wrong with the speech, the speaker's behavior, the non-pology circus, and the pathetic and tone-deaf kinds of support he has received. I just want to focus on the part about crying.

I cry easily. When I'm excited, I tend to tear up. I cry during movies. I have cried in the lab, in my advisor's office, while presenting a group meeting, and, yes, at the end of my thesis defense. I don't recall anyone ever calling it unprofessional, but I do know that that message has been implied at times. Several people, at several points in my life, have told me to "get a thicker skin" so I wouldn't cry as often.

I have a few problems with that.

For one thing, not crying, for me, is like not sneezing. I can control it a little bit, but it's hard and sometimes painful, and I often end up with my eyes watering anyway.

For another, you get a thicker skin by developing callouses, and you get callouses from repeated, sustained exposure to something abrasive or otherwise painful. No thank you, I don't want to become calloused. I don't want to expose myself to painful and abrasive things any more than necessary.

I want to be a person who feels.