Archive for: April, 2012

The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 1

Apr 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello! Zen here. I’m pleased to be on Scientopia’s Guest Blog, because blogging at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, Marmorkrebs, Sunday Matinee and running my second SciFund project was just not enough for me. You can never have enough blogs. (Besides, I can quit any time I want.)

For the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting the Moscow Rules – Science Edition.

The Moscow Rules were directives that undercover American intelligence agents allegedly used in the Cold War. The rules were there to increase agent’s chances of making it out safely.

Sometimes, being in academic science can feel like being enemy territory in a cold war. You are often in strange territory (new lab), with many unfamiliar people (other grad students, post-docs, faculty) whose motivations are unclear. You might not trust them completely (especially administrators). There might not be the risk of attempted assassination by having poison injected into you with a specially built umbrella, but there’s enough similarly that the Moscow Rules can still apply.

(To get in the right frame of mind, you might want to watch some vintage spy titles before proceeding.)

The Moscow Rules

The Moscow Rules

Rule 1.

Assume nothing.

This one almost doesn't need any further elaboration for scientists. If there’s a list of things that scientists are supposed to be, “skeptical” is high on it. But it’s one of those things that we might know intellectually, but don’t put it into practice as much as we should.

I’m thinking about replication, for example. Everyone agrees that replicating results is necessary for science, but in practice, very few people do it routinely. (I am pleased to see a project encouraging replications in psychology.) Big spectacular claims in the glamor magazines come under extra scrutiny, but if the claim is not a particularly spectacular one, there is more of a tendency to assume they’re correct.

But remember Moscow Rule #1: assume nothing. John Ioannidis is practically making a career out of pointing out that the published literature contains a lot of findings that turn out to be incorrect.

One of my papers almost didn’t happen because I ignored Moscow Rule #1. A student and I were working on a project when a relevant paper came out tackling the problem with a different technique. my student said we should replicate the other lab’s experiment. I resisted, saying, “Ah, that’s already published.” Eventually, I gave in, because I thought it would be a quick thing to replicate the results.

And we couldn’t.

Needless to say, this was an unexpected turn for the project. But the turn was still on a road that ultimately ended with a publication.

One note, though: “Assume nothing” is not the same as, “Trust no one.” I’m all for skepticism, but not paranoia.

7 responses so far

signing off

Apr 29 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'd like to thank the folks here at Scientopia for letting me guest blog for two weeks.  It was a lot of fun but also a real challenge.

Although there's no posting quota on the Guest Blogge, I decided early on that I was going to post six times a week--something I don't think I've ever done before.  And I did it--despite legal action between my ex-husband and me, a visit to our collaborators across the country, and catastrophic hard drive failure.  I'm pretty proud of myself!

I hope you learned at least one small tidbit from me.  If not, there's still hope...come and visit my blog!  And now I turn you over to the capable hands of Dr. Zen.

6 responses so far

Who I wanted to be

Apr 28 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I wrote before of the importance of deciding who you want to be: in other words, actively choosing the sorts of characteristics that you want to define you as a person.  I realized recently that, although I’d never actively chosen who I wanted to be until recently, I had picked out several role models to emulate in my younger years.  Because I had wished to be like them, I did end up acquiring many important characteristics from those role models.

 

I’d like to talk about one of those people today.  Her name was…Emily Pollifax.  Really.

 

When I was a young mom, just getting into homeschooling, I used to hang out on a homeschooling discussion forum.  One day, someone asked the question:  “Have you ever thought about what you want to do when you are done homeschooling your kids?”  Different people had different answers, of course, but one—a woman I looked up to—had an answer that really stood out. “When I grow up, I want to be Mrs. Pollifax.”  She then went on to explain that if we hadn’t read the Mrs. Pollifax books, we were missing out on something special.  Intrigued, I checked out a book from the library.  And I was hooked.

 

Mrs. Pollifax was a woman who had done everything society expected of her.  She married a lawyer, then stayed at home to raise her children.  When the children were gone she involved herself as a volunteer for various charities.  Her husband passed on but she continued to do nothing but volunteer.

 

Then, one day, her doctor noticed that she seemed rather depressed.  She replied that she felt she felt like she’d outgrown her usefulness: all that the volunteer organizations seemed to need was a good pair of teeth (for smiling).  The doctor asked her if there was anything she’d wanted to do while she was younger that she’d never got around to, and she said:  “When I was a girl, I wanted to be a spy.”  When the doctor laughed at this, Mrs. Pollifax was affronted: what was wrong with her childhood ambition?  So she applied to the CIA, got a courier job, and then proceeded to land herself in the middle of an international incident.

 

The neat thing about the Mrs. Pollifax (in this first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, and in subsequent books) is that she manages to wiggle out of the stickiest places primarily by being herself: creative, open-minded, and resourceful, of course, but also kind and keenly interested in other people.  If anything, it is these last two qualities that help her most in her “courier” work (which never ends up as a simple mission it’s supposed to be).

 

You might see how this sort of story would appeal to a stay-at-home mom.  “Yeah, I’m home with my kids now, but when I’m older…”

 

As I read, re-read, mulled over, and re-read the stories yet again, I found that I wanted to be Mrs. Pollifax too.  Except without the CIA involvement.  I would have an interesting job that involved travel (which I’ve always loved) and I would meet interesting people—not by accident, but because I’m just interested in people in general.

 

When UnlikelyDad took over homeschooling the kids in 2006, I was at a loss for what to do at first.  Yes, I was tutoring.  Yes, I was speaking at homeschooling conferences.  But these were hardly full-time activities.  I needed something to do with my life.

 

I got involved as a CERT instructor and was able to meet interesting people and teach them things like how to triage victims, how to splint an arm, and how to shore up unsafe buildings well enough to effect a rescue.  And still I was not satisfied with my life.

 

I applied to grad school and was accepted to two traditional chemistry departments and two interdisciplinary programs.  When I visited the traditional chemistry departments I noticed that something was lacking, something I couldn’t put a finger on.  I didn’t understand what until I visited MyU and listened to all of the students in my program talk about their field work.  Field work in the mountains; field work in rivers; field work at sea; field work at places I’d dreamed of visiting.  And then I knew: I didn’t just want to do science.  I wanted to have adventures doing science.  If I didn’t do field work, I’d be missing out on that part of me that craved adventure.

 

And now I do have adventures during which I attempt to do science.  During these trips I meet cool people and do neat things.

 

Stay-at-home moms of my acquaintance tell me that they live vicariously by following my escapades on Facebook.  Some have told me that they are surprised that “someone interesting” like me is willing to be friends with “someone boring” like them.  This is silly, of course: they’re interesting people too. They just happen to be interesting people with humdrum jobs.  But I know that could easily change in the future: it certainly happened to me.

 

It may seem kind of funny to say that one of my role models was a fictional character, and yet it’s true.  And though I didn’t really grow up to be like Mrs. Pollifax, I adopted the attributes I loved best about her and made them an integral part of my character.

 

God bless you, Dorothy Gilman, for creating a character that changed my outlook on life.

3 responses so far

No Wakalixes*, please: thoughts on doing outreach

Apr 27 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*Brownie points if the name 'Wakalixes' sounds familiar--do you know who coined the term?  I'll mention it later on...

 

Outreach is more and more on scientists' minds.  Or maybe I should say it's on their to-do lists.  Adding an outreach component to a grant proposal makes your Broader Impacts section look great, after all.  And, let's face it, if you go talk to a bunch of kids about what you do, there's no way you can feel guilty about being stuck in your ivory tower.  Right?

Now I've  talked to some of my fellow grad students about the outreach they've done in conjunction with their advisors--and I've also done outreach myself (on my own, with a school club, and with my advisor).  So I like to think I have an idea of the general sorts of outreach scientists like to do.

On the flip side, it's easy to put myself in the shoes of the people on the other end of the outreach: the kids.  I'm not a kid any more, but I do have kids and I used to spend a lot of time tutoring struggling students.  So I think I have some idea of how the kids react to different sorts of outreach.

After considering both the kids' and scientists points of view, here are my thoughts on different approaches to doing outreach.

(1) Talking about your research.  This generally does not work unless you're doing something that kids would consider cool, like astrobiology or something.  And even then you have to be careful that they will understand what you're talking about.  You don't want them to think that science is something that only a brave and gifted few can understand.

(2) Talking about simple science concepts.  This may be good, but sometimes it's taken to an extreme and made too simple.  Kids aren't stupid.  They may be ignorant (though even this is rare, in today's world of technology) but they definitely aren't stupid.  Also, you have to be careful that you don't make it boring.

(3) Making big booms (or other things that make the kids pay attention).   The goal of this approach seems to be, "let's show kids how cool science is":  a worthy goal.  But often people make the "big boom" the majority of the show, which defeats the purpose.  Ideally, it's supposed  to get the kids' attention, after which you explain what made the thing go boom in the first place.  If you get them excited about something, they're more likely to want to understand the underlying science.  Right?

But what I frequently see when I watch others doing 'big boom' outreach is the Wakalixes effect: using buzzwords without ever properly explaining what those buzzwords mean.

('Wakalixes' comes from Richard Feynman's book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.  When he was on California's science textbook evaluation committee, he saw a book that had pictures:  "What makes it go?  Energy makes it go."  But it never once talked about what energy is.  As Feynman said, they could have substituted some sort of nonsense word--like Wakalixes--for energy, and it would have made just as much sense to a kid who didn't understand the concept of energy.)

 So what do I like to do when I do outreach?

(1) If at all possible, I try to find out what the kids have been studying in their regular science class and use that as a springboard for what I'm going to talk about.  (For example, once I heard that the homeschool group I was going to speak at had been learning electrochemistry.  So I talked about the redox chemistry of acid mine drainage.)  Alas, this isn't always possible, but when you can do it things work out much better.

(2) I start out by asking them to think about something particular in their everyday life and what they've observed about that thing.  I ask lots of questions. The sooner I can get kids jumping up and down and waving their hands, the better.

(3) I give them a little bit of scientific background.

(4) Now I do my 'big boom' experiment related to what I'm talking about.

(5) I explain some more.

(6) I do another demonstration (usually a bit less flashy) to help illustrate the concepts.

(7) Repeat steps 5 and 6 as needed.

(8) Play time.  I ask the kids a question about the topic that we're studying that can be answered after doing an experiment.  Then I let them mess around individually or in small groups.

(9) I pull everyone back together and we discuss until the time is up.

This formula has to be tweaked slightly depending on what I'm talking about, but overall it works pretty well.  I love seeing kids walk out of the room, talking to each other (or their parents) about something related to my outreach.

 

One response so far

looking for a happy medium

Apr 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Because I'm scheduled to teach Dr. Hand-Waver's class for her next week, we've been having an ongoing discussion about educational philosophy.  Basically we're trying to decide an age-old quandary: do you cover the lower-level material until you're sure the class has mastered it?  Or do you only do so until they have the absolute basics down, then move on to more advanced topics that they might find more interesting?

Dr. Hand-Waver usually falls in the former camp (as do I), but as time goes on she's thinking more and more about the latter course of action.

To illustrate my argument for the first course of action--getting the class to master the basics before moving on to more advanced topics--I trotted out a story of a former tutor client, a 9th grader in pre-algebra.  His mom hired me to help him learn to solve for 'x', but I found I could not do that.  See, when I first got there, he was working on problems like this:

(2/3) x + 1 = 5

He understood that he had to subtract one from both sides to get (2/3)x = 4.  But after that he was stumped.  Of course I told him that he had to divide by 2/3 next, but he really didn't seem to understand that.  We played around with some other problems for a while, and it became clear that he could solve 2x = 4 just fine.

So what was his issue?  Simple: he couldn't do fractions.  Years ago, his teacher had moved him on because she should...and now it was coming back to bite him.

"If they don't understand the basics," I told Dr. Hand-Waver, "They won't be able to do the more advanced stuff.  It will make them feel stupid."

"Yes," she said, "But if they don't do the advanced stuff, they will think that our subject is all menial math.  And they will hate it.  I want them to love it."

She's right, of course.  We decided the only way to cover everything in that class was to have the students put in more time.  But the only way that would happen is if the students did it outside of class--which they won't do voluntarily.

In the mean time we're stuck trying to figure out the best way to find a happy medium between covering the cool, advanced material and the necessary basic material.  If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

3 responses so far

What is geochemistry?

Apr 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Career coaches say you should be able to describe what you do in 30 seconds or less.  I can definitely sum up my research in one sentence for non-technical folks (and no, I don’t just say “Frustrating—argh!”)

 

But I’ve found that I almost always have to answer another question:  “What is geochemistry?” I was asked this about 10,000 times during my first year in grad school (I know a lot of people outside of academia) and my one-sentence answer never seemed to satisfy people’s curiosity.  So I came up with a little blurb, a bit longer than 30 seconds, that explains my feelings about geochemistry.  Dr. Hand-Waver rolls her eyes when she hears me say it, but since she hasn’t offered a reasonable alternative, I keep using it anyway.  Here it is.  (And yes, it is a bit simplistic: this is what I tell non-technical people.)

 

What is geochemistry?

 

Well, you know what chemistry is, right?  Most chemists do work in the lab under closely controlled conditions.  They control the temperature, what goes into the flask, and stuff like that.  Geochemistry is the chemistry of the natural world.  It’s the chemistry that happens in water and rocks and the atmosphere, where there are about ten million different variables that you can’t control.

 

The usual response to this was a pause, then:  “So why would you want to study that?”  I never could quite convey to them how cool it was.  *sigh*

3 responses so far

At Sea, Part 3: Sleeping and Eating

Apr 24 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It would be dishonest to say that all you do on a research cruise is eat, sleep, and do science. (After all, this post was written when I was last at sea.)  But those three activities do comprise around 95% of what you do.  I’ve already talked about doing science, so I’ll start by discussing sleeping arrangements and then I’ll talk about my favorite subject, food.

 

Sleeping:  Unless you’re the captain, first mate, or chief scientist, you can pretty much count on having to share a room.   Rooms are, therefore, set up for two: two bunks, two closet spaces, two sets of drawers.  There’s a sink in the room and a door to a head (bathroom, for you landlubbers) that’s shared with the adjoining stateroom.

A stateroom. Everything two people need crammed into a very small space. Those orange and shiny things at the back wall are our survival suits.

Most UNOLS ships have staterooms down at water level, which means no portholes.  This is annoying if you wake up and have no idea what time it is, but very useful if you need to sleep during the day.  A lot of crews are on 12-hour shifts (3 am to 3 pm; 3 pm to 3 am or something like that) so sleeping during the day is actually quite common.  My schedule is a bit more haphazard due to the nature of the science I do—I frequently alternate working for an hour or two with sleeping for an hour or two round the clock.

 

Being at water level also means you are down by the ballast tanks (loud sloshing) and engine room (occasional banging), so earplugs are an absolute must if you want to sleep.  But other than that, I’ve found both ships I’ve been on to be reasonably comfortable.

 

 

Eating:  Meals are served on a strict schedule.  Exact schedule varies from ship to ship, but you can expect something like this:  Breakfast, 0730 to 0815; Lunch, 1130 to 1215; Dinner, 1700 to 1800.  (Everything on a ship is done in 24-hour time.)  Leftovers are stored in a fridge for those who are asleep during meals, and there's always a selection of snacks, cereal, sandwich fixings, etc. for those who get hungry at non-standard times.

 

The mess. My favorite place on the whole ship. And yes, the microwave and toaster oven in the far corner are bolted down.

People always ask me what the food is like.  The answer is:  that depends on the cook.  Most UNOLS crews are on for three months then off for three months, so you can get good grub on a ship one time and then mediocre chow the following cruise.

I’ve had food so good it would qualify for a four-star restaurant (if only it were properly plated, instead of served buffet style!) and I’ve also had pretty mundane cafeteria-style food.

 

The cooks on my very first research cruise made us fruit tarts for dessert one night. From scratch. (I saw them working during lunch.) I got spoiled on that cruise.

One thing’s for sure though: there is lots of food.  Which is good, because I always have a huge appetite at sea.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m always going up and down ladders, or if it just burns a lot of calories to keep yourself stable on a rolling deck, or what.  But it’s not just me—everyone I’ve talked to says they eat more at sea.

 

I've never used the ship's exercise room. I already have to run up and down these things 30 times a day.

I usually have a big breakfast (fruit, eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, yogurt, juice, and sometimes oatmeal), and I’m still hungry by 11. I go up and eat lunch as soon as I can: salad from the salad bar, soup, and a couple of entrees (pasta, hamburgers, stuffed peppers, whatever).  And then I’m hungry by 3:30 and say, “When will it be dinner time?!”  At dinner, I usually take half a plate of vegetables plus a big hunk of meat, some pasta or potatoes.  I add a couple of servings of dessert (cookies, pie, ice cream…depends what’s on the menu).

 

I should add that despite eating like a pig I also usually have to have at least one snack late at night or really early in the morning because of my crazy round-the-clock schedule with my research.

 

And I don’t gain weight.  That’s pretty amazing.

 

2 responses so far

learning about pedagogy

Apr 23 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

This semester I've been taking a class on teaching at the college level which has been very eye-opening.

I'm a good teacher and have been for years.  I don't think, necessarily, that I was born with the skill; rather I'd say it's due to the environment I grew up in.  My dad is a professor and my mom also teaches, and I think I instinctively adopted their ways of relating to other people.  And of course, over the years, teaching experience polished and refined my skills to what I thought was a peak.   But I was acting on instinct, or tweaking my technique based on other people's instincts.

Now I'm learning the theory, and boy has that made a difference.

For example, I would always try to incorporate the "why" into a lecture.  I knew, instinctively, that understanding why we studied something would help motivate students to learn it.  But I didn't always put the "why" at the beginning; frequently it was at the end.

As part of this class I am taking I was asked to do a presentation incorporating the skills we'd learned.  I chose to do one on a chemistry topic I'd taught before as a TA--twice in lab, where the students were asked to use a skill they hadn't been taught in lecture yet, and once in lecture, when Dr. Sharp let me lecture for her.  I'd never been satisfied with my presentation of the topic before so I wanted to tackle it again.

In preparation for this presentation I looked back at the lecture notes I'd made up when lecturing for Dr. Sharp, and I was appalled.    I talked about the concepts in a relatively logical order, but the "why" was buried in the middle of the lecture.  (In fact, I remember that it wasn't until I got to that point--about 30 minutes into a 50 minute lecture--that the students really sat up and paid attention.)

This time I structured my lecture around the Kolb cycle:

  • Why
  • What
  • How
  • What If?

And it really pulled together.  I wish I'd learned this stuff years ago.

Interestingly, this semester my department has  been in the process of hiring an instructor.  The top candidates were all asked to present a sample lecture, and grad students were invited to attend.  The hiring committee actually did solicit our input on the instructor candidates, which was nice.

During this process I found that the way I viewed candidates had changed.  Yes, I had some of the same reactions as other grad students:  "He seemed condescending," for example.  But I was also hyperaware of the candidates' pedagogy (or lack thereof).  One of the candidates, in particular, talked  afterwards about his teaching philosophy and about incorporating technology in the classroom.  But it was clear to me that he was tossing out popular buzzwords--he didn't know how to actually use these things in a lecture.

I feel like this class has been incredibly useful for me, even right now.  And I'm hoping it will be even more useful when I hit the job market.  I don't want to be one of those candidates about whom people say:  "OMG, she wants to teach?"

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Straight Talk From an Abused (Ex-) Wife

Apr 21 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I was the only one in lab late one night on our last research cruise, so I put on some music.  The volume wasn’t up terribly high; ships are terribly noisy, so it’s kind of hard to really blast music.  I had it up just high enough that I could sing along with it twenty feet away. 

And then Dr. Hand-Waver walked in the lab.  (I hadn’t expected her there because it was pretty late, but on cruises we’re always on weird schedules.)  Immediately I shut off the music. 

“You can leave the music on; I don’t mind,” she said.  But I couldn’t bring myself to turn it back on, even though I’d shut it off in the middle of one of my favorite songs.

 

When Dr. Hand-Waver heard that I had left my husband of twenty years because he was abusive, she was flabbergasted. “How can you have lived with a man like that so long?” she asked.  (She’d asked for details, and I’d given her a few—enough to convince her that it was not a healthy relationship, but not the really nasty stuff that I’ve only told my therapist and a few close friends.  Few people realize how toxic my marriage actually was.)

 

“You are one of the strongest people I know,” she said that day.  “You handle pretty much anything with grace and a smile.  How could you put up with that sort of treatment?”

 

I told her, with a big sigh, that I was so strong that I was willing to put up with more shit than I really ought to.

 

I’ve done a fair amount of introspection in the year-plus since I left my husband, and I’m not sure I would phrase it quite the same way any more.  The truth is, I was clever enough, adaptable enough, to come up with coping mechanisms for just about anything.

 

Take, for example, the anecdote I used at the beginning this post.  I’ve gotten good enough at self-analysis that within a few hours I understood exactly why I couldn’t turn the music back on: It was the wrong kind of music.

 

For my ex, that is.  We had to listen to music he liked, or else.  Of course, he always justified his musical choices.  “The kids shouldn’t listen to anything but classical,” he’d say as he shut off my oldies.  But he had no trouble playing a variety of music around our boys, like Enya (“It’s almost classical,” he said) or Weird Al (because everyone knows satire is good for developing a healthy sense of humor) or even The Doors (“I’m only making sure this CD is OK,” he said as he played a song for the fourth time).

 

Our marriage was one of double standards, so of course he wouldn’t be that lenient for my musical tastes.  Which is why, any time I’m “caught” playing the “wrong” music, I quickly shut it off and adopt a deferential attitude.  It’s kind of nuts, actually.

 

These sorts of behaviors and attitudes permeate my whole being.  I still have the gut feeling that I have to be careful what I’m doing, because if he finds out, I’ll be punished.  (Note: the abuse rarely turned physical.  But anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship knows that physical abuse is not the sort that hurts the most.)

 

It’s August 2005.  I’m curled up in bed, weeping.  UnlikelyDad has just read me the riot act. It was nice that we got to see my parents this week, he said, but seeing my parents is always draining on him and I needed to pay dearly for that. [Insert punishment-to-be-administered-soon here.]  Also, I should have told my parents not to rent a convertible, or at the very least told my children that they couldn’t ride with my parents to our mutual destination in that convertible.  What kind of risk-taker am I, allowing our children to face potential death that way?  [Insert another punishment here.] Oh, and one more thing—my community service is admirable, but in order to participate I’ve had to leave the kids with him. I really should know better.  Now what would be a fair "payment" for that?

 

UnlikelyDad looks at my tears and scowls.  He’s sorry that he has to make me cry, he says, but if he doesn’t put me in my place, I’ll never learn my lesson.

 

Being in an abusive relationship is a bit like living in a Communist country.  You’re always looking over your shoulder, always fearful, because you never know what Big Brother is going to get upset about.  You think:  “If only I were better behaved…if only I would say the right things…if only…if only…”  And it never occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, it’s not you, it’s Big Brother who’s at fault.

 

And even when you escape, you’re still not free.  A year plus of therapy and I’m still working to change these silly habits and attitudes that carried over from my marriage.

 

People who knew me well were frequently aghast when they realize how bad my marriage had become.  “We didn’t know,” they said.  (No, of course they didn’t.  Isolating the victim is a common tactic of abusers.)    Or, “We didn’t want to interfere—we thought it wasn’t our business.  What should we have done differently?”

 

I had no answers for them at the time, but now I see clearly what should be done; now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see what WAS done that made a difference.  And the thing that most helped me to leave was to be surrounded by people who treated me like an important person. You see, no matter how much you do, people won’t leave an abusive spouse until they feel ready to—until they feel like they’re worth enough to deserve a life free from belittling and shaming.

 

I was not able to leave until I was able to see that my concerns were actually valid; that my ideas were actually worthwhile; that I was, in fact, an awesome person.  Not perfect—trust me, abuse victims are very aware of their imperfections—but good enough to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

 

I think of my friends back in California, who told me that my feelings did matter, even though I sometimes didn’t have logical reasons for those feelings.  “Sometimes our unconscious mind knows things that our conscious mind hasn’t yet realized,” said one wise comrade.

 

I think of my co-workers on the CERT instructor committee:  “Everyone has something to bring to the table,” our boss would say.  “Think about what you can contribute.”  It had never occurred to me before that I had anything to bring to the table that wasn’t immeasurably flawed.  But in that environment, I was praised constantly by those around me and I flourished.

 

I think of SL, my first research mentor.  “Wow, UnlikelyGrad!” he’d say enthusiastically, “This is fantastic!  You’ve done way more than I was asking you to do!”  I’d never realized before that I was anything more than average.

 

I think of one of the profs I worked with as a TA.  I told him about a flaw I’d seen in the lab curriculum we were using and told him several ways we might go about fixing the flaw.  (And I must tell you, this was kinda scary for me to do; I was sure he would look down his nose at me the way UnlikelyDad did when I had wild ideas.) I could tell he was skeptical at first, but he said he understood my concerns; he asked me to listen to his concerns too, and together we hashed out some ideas. He asked me to test the most promising idea, and it worked…and we made a permanent change in the curriculum for the following semester.  It was so nice to have my concerns listened to and validated.

 

Even Dr. Hand-Waver, with her very matter-of fact tone, was helpful in letting me know that my ideas were worthwhile:  “You handled that well”  or “Interesting.  I didn’t think of it that way before…”  or “I’m dubious, but you might be right.  Maybe we should test that hypothesis.”

 

And so this is what I would say to all of you:  You will not always know when someone is being abused.  In some ways, it does not matter.

 

Treat each person as if they were special.  I don’t mean the wimpy, watered-down “special” that they tout in schools nowadays.  I mean really special.  Each person has talents and gifts that can be praised; praise them sincerely for these things.

 

I am not telling you to resort to dishonesty in order to make people feel good: quite the opposite.  Dishonest flattery is not only easily detectable, it doesn’t help build someone’s inner strength the way that honest praise does.  So be honest.  Be sincere.  Most importantly, be conscientious in getting a feel for who people are and what they do well, and let them know these things.

 

For example, one of my lab students was a gifted artist.  I looked forward to her structure drawings and I always gave written or verbal compliments on them even though, otherwise, she was a solid ‘B’ student.  I have had students who cleaned up their lab space thoroughly; I have always made sure to tell them how much I appreciated their cleanliness.

 

If the majority of people made an effort to give sincere praise, to make others realize that their ideas might have merit and that their talents can make the world a better place, then perhaps we would live in a world where no one would feel like they deserved abuse.  Maybe everyone who was being abused would have the strength to stand up for themselves.  Maybe.

 

We’ll never find out until we try.

 

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The bane of would-be oceanographers

Apr 20 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

When I was growing up I knew a girl who wanted to be a marine biologist.  (Alas, we lost touch after high school, so I’m not sure if she ever did attain that goal.)  When we were kids she was the only person I knew with that dream, but as I got older I discovered an awful lot of people whose childhood goal had been to become oceanographers of some sort.  It seems it isn’t as unusual of a dream as I thought.

 

And, I’ve discovered, there’s a common thread amongst people who wanted to be oceanographers as kids and ended up doing something else instead:

 

They get seasick.

 

Not just puke-up-the-dinner-once-and-then-you’re-okay seasick, like me.  I mean terribly, violently ill.

 

I have a friend who used to be a marine tech at a Famous Institute of Oceanography.  It was her dream.  She did stuff with submersibles.  As long as she was down below the surface of the water, she was fine; but when she was on the ship, she was so busy puking up her guts that she literally could not function.  Needless to say, she’s now doing freshwater environmental chemistry.

 

Of all the things that could derail a childhood dream, it’s kinda sad to be stopped by an issue as mundane as seasickness.

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