The Bus

"The last student who went to graduate school after working with me was hit by a bus," my research advisor said to me as I began to figure out what I'd do after graduation with a Bachelor's degree and a desire to work in industry. He has an odd sense of humor, and I took the comment as a reminder to keep my eyes open and not get wrapped up in my head. This same advisor had encouraged me to apply to graduate programs, warning me that it would be hard later to "take the vow of poverty" after an industrial-sized paycheck if I decided to pursue a PhD after a few years on the job.

I didn't know the first thing about the graduate school application process and wasn't even sure where to apply. He encouraged me to set my sights high, nudged me toward higher profile programs and, in retrospect, he also guided me away from programs that I later learned had reputations for treating their students poorly. I was accepted at multiple schools thanks to his efforts, my letter writers, and the good advice I got about writing personal statements.

Skip ahead three years and his voice is in my ear, though it's only a memory speaking: "the last student … was hit by a bus." I cross the street like I'm five. Look left-look right-look left. All clear. I'm going to finish this thing and I will not become a pancake.

It's not until another year later, maybe two, that I hear something different as the memory speaks: "the last student stepped in front of a bus."

Oh.

Oh.

Oh no.

I don't know the story. I never knew the other student, but I can't unhear this version of the story now. And I understand it in a different way: Be careful, and Come back safe, okay?

During graduate school I learned about my anxiety, and I experienced the emotional quicksand that is depression. I felt sad for no apparent reason. Blue. Down. There were days I was unmotivated to leave home. Days when the failures of my research felt like failures of my self. And I realized one day that my predecessor had probably felt the same way.

I wish I could reach back through time and tell him that depression lies. But I can't. It doesn't work that way.

So I'll tell you: Depression lies. Don't carry that burden around alone. You are worthy of love and worthy of help.

And please, for the love of whatever you hold dear, be careful crossing the street. Come back safe, okay?

Professoring by the Golden Rule

My internal clock is perpetually off. I am very, very good at arriving 5 minutes late. Reminders and alarms help, but they aren't a cure.

I am also an Olympic-level procrastinator. Something due at noon? I may finish at 11:57 that morning. (If it didn't rank high enough on my to-do list, I may have started at 11.) More than once I have stayed up late (or, in some cases, gotten up early) to finish something I ought to have done weeks before.

So when a student arrives to class late, or scribbles down the last of their homework just before handing it in, I don't get mad. It doesn't seem fair to judge them for behavior I also exhibit. (Pot, meet Kettle.) I try to set reasonable expectations for workload and due dates. I try to be forgiving when they miss class, or forget to come to a meeting. Because I have also had to miss class, and I have also forgotten meetings, and I have also had to respond to unexpected events in my life that were out of my control. Sometimes I am the person asking for their understanding.

I try to teach by following a form of the Golden Rule:

Expect of others what you would have them expect of you.

I see it as an act of mercy. Some of my colleagues call it coddling. "They need to be prepared for The Real World! In the Real World you'd be fired. In the Real World blah blah blah!"

They're already in the real world. They're holding down jobs, and some have kids of their own. They're participating in service, and active in athletics. They're people with responsibilities, hobbies, and demands on their time and attention. I am not the only influence in their lives. My class is not the most important thing in their lives.

And I can live with that.

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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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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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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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.

One year on

This time last year, I was a newly-minted PhD, still revising my dissertation. I had just accepted my job at Briggs, and I was preparing for a conference, a vacation, and a new routine.

I don't remember much of my defense. My parents came to see it, even though it was a Wednesday afternoon and a 10-hour drive from their home. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. I couldn't remember the order of my slides, even though I'd given many variations of that same talk all the way through grad school. When I finished my talk, I cried.

My defense wasn't advertised beyond a poster on the seminar board alongside a dozen other defenses scheduled for the same week. Besides my committee and labmates, almost no one came. I'd been a bit disappointed about this when I started, but that turned to relief and gratitude when I was dabbing my eyes and pulling myself together most of an hour later.

I don't remember what questions the audience asked, and only one of the questions from my committee afterward. One committee member asked for a set of values in a tone of voice that, to me, implied I hadn't done my due diligence. Seeing as that value was highlighted in a table, sleep-deprived me lost patience and told said committee member to read the dissertation. I think I said something like "you'll find that on page 47 in table 2.3," but my internal dialogue was closer to "you obviously didn't bother to read my dissertation," so it's entirely possible that I said something else.

We celebrated in a conference room around the corner from my lab office. My labmates made me a goofy paper hat decorated with pictures of things they associated with me. It was very sweet of them, and moreso because it was a surprise. The hat is now a lab tradition, and I hope it continues. I am Graduate #1. I got to see the start of a lot of lab traditions.

I turned in my dissertation a month later, and continued to work in the lab, wrapping up projects and working on a collaboration up until I left for the conference (and subsequent vacation) in Europe. When I got back, everything was different.

I started at Lyman Briggs College in August.1 It was a new job at a new place, with new colleagues and new students, and I had to learn everything. Where is the copier? What are the college policies? Who do I ask for X or Y? Where to I park my car? What order will we cover the course material in? How deep do we dive into each chapter? How does the course website work? What resources are available? And on and on and on. An overwhelming amount of newness in my environment and also in what was expected of me.

It took me most of the fall semester to get used to being a professor. Some aspects, like delivering lectures, holding office hours, and making copies were familiar. But others -- being the authority the learning assistants turned to, handling grade disputes, offering feedback to colleagues with much more experience than myself -- took a big shift in mindset.

I have learned a lot in the past year. No longer a student, but an instructor, still I continue to grow and learn. Last year, I'd made and given a small handful of lectures. One year on, I've not just delivered 120 lectures to hundreds of students, I've also kept up the routine. When you're a grad student interviewing for a job, you can refine a teaching demo over the course of a week or more. When you're teaching, one awesome talk on Monday is not enough. You've got to be ready for class on Wednesday and Friday as well.

Academia is a flexible place to work. I can grade in my office or at home. I can decide to eat lunch with a friend near home, rather than spending a day on campus. Inspirations for lecture and practice problems can come form anywhere. But academia is also a rigid place to work. When I have a lecture, I must be there. I can't reschedule it. One hundred twenty-five students will be there, whether I am or not. One year on, I'm still getting the hang of this combination of rigidly structured and fully unstructured time.

When I started at Briggs, few people had seriously called me "Dr. Haas." It took a while to get used to; not just the title change (thought it was a much faster transition than when I changed my name after marriage), but the notion that I was a doctor of some sort. I couldn't tell my students to go ask their professor -- that professor was me!

I'd look at Facebook and see friends from high school, college and my time as an exchange student, and I'd see the great things they'd done, places they'd gone, children they'd had, careers they'd built, and I'd think "What have I done with my life?" And then my husband would point out that none of the people in question had doctorates in chemistry, that I'd spent five years in pursuit of that degree, and that I should very much give myself a break.

You see, despite five years of graduate school and all it entailed, it was (and sometimes still is) easy to forget I'd actually gotten a PhD. It's my own flavor of Impostor Syndrome, I guess. That nagging feeling that there'd been some mistake. That I wasn't really good enough for a PhD from a highly ranked university. That they gave me a PhD to get rid of me because they pitied me, but I'd gotten too far for them to kick me out.

One year on, I answer to "Dr. Haas," "Doc," "Professor," and occassionally "Prof Haas" without blinking. I've stopped feeling like the mail room is off-limits, or like I'm a child in an adults-only space. I am less surprised when a colleague asks for my input or feedback.

When I started I feared for the way I'd measure up to stereotypes. I dressed up a little; I wore khakis and slacks. I addressed emails to students more formally than my usual style. I checked and double-checked my work for errors so my students wouldn't see me fail.

One year on, I'm in skirts every Friday. It started as "Formal Fridays" in my mind, but soon became "Fearless Fridays" when I discovered that dressing like myself gave me a confidence boost. I can tackle so much more in my dress boots and a skirt than in my fall semester "uniform."

One year on, I still make mistakes. Having yet to achieve apotheosis, I expect the mistakes will continue. ;-) But I'm learning. I make new and different mistakes, and my ability to make corrections -- and let the students and learning assistants correct me -- can be evidence to my students that you don't have to be right all the time. When it comes to dealing with students, I've relaxed.

Last year my colleagues were strangers. My freshmen hadn't yet graduated high school. I had a plan for only one year. One year on, my colleagues are mentors and friends, my students have settled into college life, and my one-year job is at an end.

It has been a real delight to work at Briggs with such wonderful, supportive, creative faculty (and staff!) and highly motivated students. The students may not all love chemistry, but they do see the value in it. They challenge me and surprise me. They are funny and insightful and earnest. They bring me so much joy. I am sad to go.

But I won't be sad forever. This spring I accepted a tenure-stream position at Misericorida University. I have new colleagues, new students and a new plan. I'm thrilled, even as I start to take farewell of Briggs and MSU. I have more to learn, more ways to grow, and another good place to do it.

So here's to another year. Wish me luck.


1: Lyman Briggs College (aka Briggs) is a residential science college at Michigan State University: all of the students are science majors of one sort or another. In addition to taking intensive, group-focused introductory science and math courses together, the students also take courses on the history, philosophy and sociology (aka HPS) of science. It's a pretty cool place to work, and I'd have loved it as a student there.

Those who can, do. Those who can explain, teach.

My mother is an elementary school teacher. She chose that career path at approximately the age of 12 when writing an essay about what she wanted to be when she grew up. And she stuck to it. She's a Master Teacher, an expert in elementary education with extensive experience in remedial reading and math. She's taught nearly every level of elementary school, and since there aren't as many specialized courses in elementary school, she's taught nearly every subject, too.

My brother and I spent many, many Saturday and summer afternoons in my mom's classrooms, or playing in the empty hallways. She teaches in a different district than we went to school in, otherwise I'm sure we'd have spent even more afternoons and evenings at school. I have many memories of stocking bookshelves, cutting out cardstock shapes, keeping an eye on the laminating machine, sorting counters and tools and toys.

From the age of 12, if not before, I was asked "Are you going to be a teacher like your mom?" I got tired of that question very quickly. No, I was not going to be a teacher. Teaching is a lot of work! I didn't want to grade papers and prepare a classroom and write lesson plans. "You'd make a great teacher, just like your mom." Nope. Not doing it.

I went to college with the intent of becoming a science writer. I was a chemistry major on the B.A. track looking to take a lot of writing courses, and possibly double-major with journalism. My academic and research advisors convinced me that if I really wanted to talk about the science, I should learn more of it. So I switched to the B.S. track. And got into research. And fell in love with chemistry all over again.

Graduate school was not originally part of my plan. But after the B.S., it seemed like the logical next step. At that point I wanted a job in industry working on semiconducting materials. A PhD would help that, and I was told it would be much easier to take the "graduate school vow of poverty" before an industry job, rather than after. So I went to graduate school.

The questions about whether I was going to be a teacher then changed a bit. People still asked if I was going to teach, just like mom. But then I'd also get a few "Are you going to be a professor like your grandfather?" Nope. Not teaching. I'm going to be a scientist, not a teacher.

That lasted until about 10 seconds into my first teaching experience as a graduate TA. It turns out that I love teaching. That even when things are hard and crappy and it seems like I don't understand anything at all, I can walk into a classroom and feel alive.

There's a funny thing about being a scientist, though. Even though there's a lot of cultural pressure to be an academic, there's a heaping helping of disdain for anyone who actually wants to teach. You're "supposed" to put research first. Many, many times I would talk to other scientists about future plans and lie right through my teeth. Of course I wanted to go the research path! Of course I wanted a future full of grant-writing and a massive lab of grad students and post-doc!

All I really wanted was a classroom full of curious undergrads and the chance to give them research experience.

This summer, at the Gordon Conference, I was surrounded by R1-types. And I, newly hired for a teaching position, was actually honest about my career goals. I said I wanted to teach undergrads and have the opportunity—but not the requirement—to do research. Some people gave me the "that's nice" dismissal. I had admitted that research was not my #1 Thing. It was like admitting some kind of weakness. Like I am "not a serious scientist" because I care about instruction.

I once had lunch with a seminar speaker who refuses to admit more than one undergrad in her lab at a time, yet seeks out graduate students who, like herself, had undergraduate research experience. She wants to take all of the benefit and share none of the burden. I find that incredibly unfair. But then, I would like to run the sort of lab that feeds graduate programs with experienced undergraduates. I suppose what I want is that burden without the same benefit.

So I plan to teach. And do research. But in that order and not the other way around. That doesn't make me a second-rate scientist. It makes me an educator.

At an institution of higher education, don't you think you need a few educators?

Permission to be here

One thing that surprised me about the change from grad student to professor is how shy I felt about doing "faculty" things. Checking my department mailbox. Using the copier. Going to meetings.

When I was in high school, I once knocked on the door of the faculty break room during lunch hour, in search of a teacher. Nobody shooed me away, but there was still the feeling that students were verboten from the break room. (And why not? Some of those teachers seriously needed a break from students, if only for a few minutes.)

The first time I went into the Briggs break room I had the same feeling. Like I'd trespassed in Grown-up Land. Except I'm a grown-up too. And I'm a professor too. And I'm totally allowed—even expected—to be there.

I consider how I would feel if there were no other women, or if I were some other minority in the department, or if my college and colleagues were not so supportive. This is how many people do feel, and it's not just in their heads—many workplaces are not welcoming and inviting, people are made to feel uncomfortable and othered. I am lucky that most of what I face is internal. Nobody's actively pushing me out. In fact, they keep welcoming me and encouraging me. They want me to succeed.

I realized I was asking everyone around me for permission to be there, and that was undermining my confidence. I don't need anyone's permission to do my job. I'm the real deal, not an impostor.

Like the spy movie cliché, people tend to assume you belong and you know where you're going. You just have to act like it. Do it long enough, and you might just fool yourself.

So when I feel uncertain now, I just act. I pretend confidence, and the confidence becomes real.

Hire me

I love working at Lyman Briggs, but the job I have is a temporary one. I’m only here for a year. The academic job market has a particular annual cycle, and right now it’s application time for tenure-track positions. This means that though I will be happily teaching chemistry at Briggs from now until May (and possibly into the summer), I have to look for next fall’s job now.

I don’t like applying for stuff. I don’t like selling myself. I worry that nobody will want me, that nobody likes what I do, that I’m not good enough, experienced enough, polished enough to get the job I want. I worry that I’ll be passed over because of my gender, my opinions, my beliefs, my appearance or my personality. I worry that the search for the next job will be a hindrance to the job I am currently doing.

But.

When I can drive the poison of Impostor Syndrome from my addled brain, I remember that I’m actually a competent, qualified instructor with a passion for teaching. I’m an expert in my field, with the publications and fancy diploma to prove it. I am capable and talented and enthusiastic. I have a deep desire to ask and answer scientific questions. I have the potential not just to succeed, but to thrive.

So if you’re at a liberal arts college or regional university and you have an open position in chemistry to fill for next fall, I hope you’ll consider me when my application crosses your desk.

Excited state

My job has overwhelmed me more times than I can count. I have found it very hard. But I love it. So much. I must be nuts to love this much hard.

So far I’ve had students crying at me in the hallway and at office hours,1 one call to the paramedics, one student at office hours who proceeded to break one of my pens despite several requests to leave it alone, some angry demands for exam points back, some shy requests for office hour help, and many very funny emails.2 I’ve been called Professor a lot, Dr. Haas most of the time, and occasionally mistaken for a student. I’ve been consulted on a medical issue3 and I’ve been thanked for the tiniest things as if I’d bestowed some royal favor.

I’m primarily responsible for a lecture section, but I have to admit that my favorite time is spent in office hours and lab. I love lab. I get to wander through the room, nudging students into understanding. Why did that happen? Did you expect that? What does that mean? Last week’s lab was on light absorption and emission. I stationed myself at the absorption experiment (look at salt solutions with a spectroscope) and peppered the students with questions. Is this absorption, emission, or something else? How do you know?

Last Wednesday, I was going through this with one group, and a young woman got just to the edge of an epiphany—and she started to move. She was practically dancing, moving in place and gesturing as she talked. I could see her eyes light up, and her voice rose as she worked through the questions I hoped would lead to her understanding.

In emission, the electrons are in an excited state and fall to a lower energy state, releasing a photon.

This young woman, shaking with energy, was a student in the excited state. On the verge of enlightenment. It was beautiful.

My Wednesdays are long days. I left home that day around 7 am and got home after 9 pm. And I was finishing an exam, and planning out the next week, and calming test anxieties. Long, long days. It’s hard.

But that dancing student, eyes alight, she made the day sparkle. This is why I love this job.

1: I swear they weren’t crying because of me! I don’t want to be the scary professor.

2: Sorry students, but you guys totally crack me up when you’re so very serious.

3: “What should I do about this weird growth?” “Um, take it to a medical doctor? I’m a chemist.”