Month: February 2014

Doing Science, Advising Students, and a Bit of Shockley

There is a small programming assignment I like to give my beginning grad students or upper-level undergrads who want to do research in my group. The assignment is a reasonably simple but quite accurate simulation of a system they all encountered during undergraduate studies. Most students never really ask themselves what the approximations are that result in the textbook results. The simulation, which is perhaps several hundred lines of code, solves several coupled partial differential equations in one spatial dimension; the students learn about the numerics  as well as about the theory that describes the behavior of the physical system beyond the textbook approximations.

I have a new undergrad who is great, smart and motivated, and who fit in the group very well. If I am lucky, he will stay here to get his masters and then will likely go someplace with better brand-name recognition to do a PhD; I understand that’s what the student must do as it’s the reasonable thing to do, but at baseline it’s always somewhat infuriating. When some colleagues at Über Unis look down on us from State Schools, I wonder if they ever realize that those awesome kids with research experience who get into their labs did not sprout from the ground, somebody who knows how to do science has actually trained them. The best American students in the physical sciences have plenty of options to go to the most prestigious universities and, if they are well advised (by whom, I wonder?) to realize what’s out there for them to apply for, they can do it on prestigious fellowships. Luckily for me, there are plenty of very smart international graduate students with whom I get to work, in part because options are more limited for them for a number of reasons. But that’s a topic for another post…

The undergrad did a great job, was able to write the code and the code performs the required checks accurately. Then I said “Great! Now you can use it to teach us something new about the model system.” The student was puzzled, we talked a bit, he came back a week later with what he felt were pretty boring results, not knowing whether there would be anything interesting in such a simple system. I said “These are all the things off the top of my head that you could inquire — how realistic are all the textbook approximations, to what extent they hold up in a more realistic simulation, how important are a these different details in the simulation for the physics, what happens if you completely disregard this or that and how it would translate to reality…” You get the point. He thought there was nothing there and to me there were 15 interesting things to ask. I gave him my little speech about how code is like a piece of experimental equipment — once you are done lovingly building it, the science part is deciding what questions are both worth asking and are possible to answer with the tool that you have. 

Left to right: Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the transistor. Bardeen went on to win another Nobel Prize for superconductivity, and is considered one of the nicest and most unassuming scientists in history. Shockley was said to have had “reverse charisma” — when he entered the room, you’d instantly dislike him.

This exchange reminded me of this very nice blog post on Dynamic Ecology, in which Brian McGill discussed the pretty famous paper by William Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner (with Bardeen and Brattain) for the transistor and thought by many to be one of most brilliant and most nasty people they had ever met.  Shockley had been able to identify and recruit smart people for Shockley Semiconductor Labs, whom he then drove away (the Traitorous Eight) into Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that became the incubator for the Silicon Valley,  having spun off a number of companies, “Fairchildren”, such as Intel and AMD. Anyway, Shockley’s paper is worth reading for a number of reasons; it is actually pretty famous for its discussion of the log-normal distribution of productivity over professional scientists. What Dynamic Ecology pulled forward and what I find interesting here is Shockley’s hypothesis that productivity depends on the ability to clear multiple hurdles, and he names 8. Being good at all of them is key, you cannot be exceptional at one thing and inadequate at another, as success depends on the product of functions that measure one’s: 

  1. ability to think of a good problem
  2. ability to work on it
  3. ability to recognize a worthwhile result
  4. ability to make a decision as to when to stop and write up the results
  5. ability to write adequately
  6. ability to profit constructively from criticism
  7. determination to submit the paper to a journal
  8. persistence in making changes (if necessary as a result of journal action).

Everything here depends in part on talent, personality/temperament, and training (much of the latter by osmosis).

For instance, there are many students who have #2, i.e. they are smart enough to work on a good problem, provided that someone else formulates it (#1). It takes talent as well as experience to learn what constitutes a good problem, the right combination of interesting and doable in a reasonable time and with available resources. Similarly, with #3 and #4 — it takes experience to know when something has become a publishable nugget, when the data is enough to support a compelling and convincing insight. Once you realize that #5 and #7 are important (and they really, really are: all the nice work you might have done is as good as nonexistent until you publish it), you need to have a good PhD or postdoc advisor from whom you can learn how to write well. If you are a talented person, you can become really good at many of these aspects early in your career with good focused training. Otherwise, it can take you much longer to realize the importance and then teach yourself the skills, and your early career can be impeded.

#6 and #8 essentially mean grit and they are extremely important; probably even more important for grants than papers these days. Most of my grad students get discouraged when we get revise and resubmit with potentially lengthy revisions, because they feel we had already submitted a great product so why this silliness now. And they may or may not have a point, but the key is to go on.  I have had to do it many times already, and I am simply desensitized to it. We have to do it so we do it. But I see that students can wonder whether all the effort is worth it — at the end the result is a paper. You gotta love getting papers published. And having a thick skin does not hurt.

Anyway, this post was written in fits and starts, so I think I totally lost my train of thought and with it my point. But it’s fun to think about what success entails and exciting to see a young person starting to learn about the moving parts of the enterprise of science — what it means to formulate a problem, execute a project, and finally disseminate new knowledge. I guess my point is that I really love advising students.

Hibernating

I don’t really like winter. Actually, most of the time I really really hate it; I can’t wait for the spring, and I am grumpy and whiny on account of weather for months on end. If you meet me in real life, and the topic of weather comes up as it invariably does, I am one of those obnoxious people who will take this opportunity to tell you all about how her husband doesn’t mind the winter but she would prefer moving someplace warm instead, and then proceeds to tell you all about how much she really really does not like winter. Really.

This winter, the weather sucked quite fiercely. Yet, surprisingly, I didn’t particularly mind. Perhaps I am finally getting used to the weather. Perhaps I am both getting used to the weather and am generally more relaxed on account of finally having internalized the bliss that is a secure, well-paid job.

But what I think really helped is that, this winter, I planned to not travel anywhere for work December through April. I would have made an exception for federal funding agencies that give me money or I hope will someday give me money because, as a senior colleague says, all scientists wear fishnet stockings, but otherwise I have not been available to travel and it has been glorious.

Travel for work stresses me out during the best of times. There is a lot to do beforehand and then when I come back I am backlogged anyway. The logistics of travel when classes are in session is really difficult, if you care about your students, that is — I have colleagues who travel so much I have no idea how they cover their classes; whatever they do cannot be too convenient for the students. And then you add the bad winter weather to the mix, with flight delays and cancellations, and germy fellow passengers sneezing and coughing all over you…

Over the past decade, I have always had a lot of travel during winter, and I think the travel has added considerably to my baseline grumpiness. So this year I decided to hibernate, and I am very, very glad I did: I stayed here, doing my job, snuggling with family, and keeping warm. I have done a lot of work with students, and we will have several new manuscript submissions in the next couple of months; this year should be great in terms of group’s publications. Sometimes I think we should all stay put  more often, just do our work with students and postdocs, and avoid burning kerosene, sleeping in hotels, and generally exhausting both ourselves and our funds.

Honorary Dudeness

This semester I am again teaching a class with zero girls (as I wrote before, I feel silly calling 19 or 20-year old girls women; based on the fact that I didn’t consider myself a woman well until after kid No 2 and past the age of 30, I am sticking to calling them girls).  Lecturing to a 100% male audience happens occasionally, once every couple of years, and while you’d think it’s not that different from teaching a class with 1 or 2 women, it actually is different.  It doesn’t feel uncomfortable, but it’s not entirely comfortable either. I am a middle-aged, female, dog-and-pony show with vector calculus, waving colored markers in front of  a whole sea of mostly half-asleep young dudes. Being  that I am the mom of multiple young dudes, my general feelings towards my students are warm and motherly — mostly, I realize they are just oversize kids. But the whole experience is ever so slightly more weird with zero girls in the classroom than with at least some.

Another interesting thing is the relationship that I end up having with the occasional young woman in my class. Either they really like me and we develop a nice connection, or they are squarely at the “this professor sucks” end of the spectrum. Here’s an example. Last semester I had 2 girls in an undergrad class of about 30. I had a great rapport with that class, one of the top 2 or 3 experiences overall, and I received really high teaching evaluations overall. I had a lot of students in my office during office hours, the whole class was very upbeat. Of the two women, one did great, was very active and I got to know her through office hours, we talked about the follow-on courses, graduate school, etc. The other didn’t particularly care for me or the class . When I got the  student evaluations back, most of the student scores and comments were glowing, but among the unenthused ones, one mentioned that I was sometimes 1-2 minutes late to class. What I thought to myself as I read it was “Wow, how petty. And not even true.” While I cannot be certain, I am pretty sure the comment came from the second female student, because she has very distinctive hand writing.

Unfortunately, I think that it’s not very uncommon for women in the fields where they are underrepresented to develop one of the polar opposites of relationships  (this may also be true of other underrepresented minorities, I don’t know), with the relationship where other women are kept at an arm’s length or are being looked down upon actually being the more common variant. I know that, when you are a young woman in a field dominated by young men, and you are competent and confindent, you can often seemingly blend in by becoming an Honorary Dude — HD for short (I thought I had first heard this term from Zuska, but upon further digging it turns out she used Almost D00d; I remember a little light bulb go on in my head as I first read her articulation of this concept and it felt so familiar). I spent much of my youth in this mode, cherishing my HD status, because I was smart and meritorious and not like those other women. So I can see that competent young women often do come with their own small group of dude friends (who are usually either comparably or less competent than the girl) with whom they work and study.  I have yet to see two young women in the same circle/study group in any of my classes — it’s like no one wants to work with girls, not even other girls, and certainly not the HD’s who are “smart and cool, not like other girls.”

It’s a stereotype that women are often weird to other women, the “mean girls” syndrome and all that. Perhaps geeky women and their relationship to other geeky women are no exception. What I know is that I took me a long time, which I presume entails growing up, to understand that being an Honorary Dude is bullshit, that I am a girl/woman, and that no one ever forgets that for one second regardless of how much we all pretend. I also realized that other women really don’t need me to crap on their parade and that I should instead help them if I can. Unless another woman has really done something bad to me, I should get over myself and whatever insecurities I have and not demonize her for being successful or having different priorities than me. I am now that woman of whom I used to make fun, who is counting the female speakers at conferences and female participants on grant review panels and female interviewees during faculty searches. Why? Because I grew up and took off my HD badge and realized how disheartening it is to see to what degree my male colleagues — especially the good guys — really believe that 100% men is the norm, and that any women present are really either veritable superstars (even if most men are far from it) or are believed to be a token used to satisfy some political correctness requirement. This pisses me off, and it’s exhausting, but unless I bring it up nobody else does.

We often talk about female students needing female role models and mentors. But I think we need to be aware that we can’t a priori count on a female student establishing good rapport with a female teacher. Maybe that female teacher being lame or fat or  having an accent or being a minute late to class or however else unworthy of the female student’s admiration will actually do less to retain that student than the all-male professorial cast that the young woman expects. For young women, wearing the HD badge and placing even female instructors with all the other women may well be a necessary survival adaptation. I am established and fairly secure in who and where I am, and I am also older, so I have the luxury of consciously dismantling my Honorary Dude status among my colleagues or my male students, because I know the status is fake and it hurts other women. So as easy as it would be to continue wearing my HD badge, I keep electing to wear the potentially lame female prof one instead, and I keep trying to be nicer, more open, and more helpful to other women than even my gut tells me to be, and in spite of some young (or not so young) women looking down on me, as they think they know better or that I am weak or silly or matronly for being all female. But the benefit has been that I have also managed to establish better, deeper connections with other women than I have generally had in the past, and I have hopefully become more attuned to and more helpful with the struggles that women in STEM face.

If you are a young woman in STEM, ask yourself how your view your scientific elders. Do you have different, perhaps unreasonable expectations of your female instructors? InBetween had a really nice summary of how students view male and female TAs. Are there some female instructors you just don’t like without being able to point out what it is that you dislike? Do you feel the same way towards your male instructors? What about your peers — are there other girls/young women with whom you study? Ask yourself if you judge your female peers more harshly because they are girls.

Bimodal

I talked with a senior colleague a couple of weeks ago and he mentioned that grade distributions have become increasingly bimodal. There are kids who have high scores and kids with very low scores, and very few students in between. The colleague said it didn’t use to be like that, that the students 20-30 years ago used to simply be better on average, and grade distributions used to be the beloved normal (Gaussian) distributions.

I don’t know how students used to be, but I can attest that the bimodal distribution is the norm rather than the exception in many of my courses. There are students who are obviously getting the material and who could probably take on even more challenge. And there are the kids who are so far behind and who have so many deficiencies from lower-level courses that it’s unclear what it is that they are actually getting from the class, if anything.

The problem with this profile is that you don’t know whom to aim your lectures at. My best-ever teacher in grad school said “20% of the students will do great no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, but there are 60% of students where how you teach really affects what they learn and how well they do; you want to tailor your lectures towards the 60%.” The thing I see is that there are 40% who are doing well and 40% who are doing really poorly, and 20% who are doing so-so. The people who are consistently doing really poorly likely shouldn’t even be in this major, but I am not sure what to do about it. On account of them, I can’t do what I could do in class with the students who are doing really well. Rather than a near-continuum of abilities, we have a pretty big chasm, such that most of the class is either really bored or really lost. It seems that there are very few people near the average, for whom the middle-centric teaching approach of my former teacher would work.

What I do is try to assign extra homework with some brain teasers for additional credit, and I already give 2-3 extra problems per exam that require a little non-trivial thinking. But the lectures do still get dragged towards the lowest common denominator, which leaves some kids really bored. I am not sure how to teach to a class with such a wide range of skills. Ideally, the students at the very bottom of the curve would get sent back to take some remedial courses, but I can’t see that being a widely acceptable practice as college costs money and everyone is interested in funneling the students all the way through to a degree, somehow. We as teachers are discouraged from failing students, but then the value of a BS degree of good students drops with every poor students graduating despite having learned squat.

Who is the one who tells a student “Maybe this is not a major for you” or “You need to go back and learn some calculus and then re-take the class”? The thing is that what’s best for the student may not be the best for enrollment numbers on which department budgets hinge. Consequently, we go soft on the people who really should not be getting our degrees. I try to mind my own business and am no rebel, but this issue makes me wish I were. It makes me sick that everything is always only about money, and that even our core mission — educating students — has to deteriorate for this reason.

Midterm Mania

If you are a professor on the semester system, you have probably just finished administering your first midterm for the spring, or are about to. 

I used to go for long evening midterms and a long final (2 hrs each), and decided these were a nightmare to schedule and a nightmare to grade. After every exam, I would just lose the will to live with all the grading, and I would fall behind on all my other work, plus  there is always someone who had to skip the exam for whatever reason, so I often had to administer and proctor make-up exams.

I have recently switched to more frequent exams — three in-class midterms and a final, 50 min  each — and my will to live has been holding fairly steady during grading. The students love the higher exam frequency, as they get info on how they are doing more often and their final grade is not so strongly affected by any individual midterm, which alleviates stress. Also, as most professors at my school like to give two midterms, students get swamped during certain weeks as all exams fall at the same time; with three instead of two midterms, we are off-cycle with the other exams and students have a little more time to prepare.

I used to do weekly quizzes, but that simply ends up being too much grading for comparatively little gain. If the students know the quizzes carry very little weight, they are usually not overly compelled to study just for the quizzes. Those who study for the quizzes tend to study and do well anyway. I could make quizzes carry more weight, but then they become like exams, so why have full midterms and not just quizzes in that case?

Anyway, so far an exam about every 4 weeks (or every 3 HW assignments) seems to work well; it provides a balance between the exams being short enough to be done in class and not be too painful to grade, frequent enough to give plenty of feedback to students, yet each is long enough to give meaningful info on the student’s mastery of the material.

I have a confession — I actually quite enjoy creating problem sets, especially for exams and projects. That’s a pretty cool and creative part of the job. For undergrads, I don’t go too crazy with creating original homework because undergrads like to use the textbook in order to feel they have gotten their money’s worth (also to copy the solutions of others); when I assign textbook problems, I explain to students that the homework carries very little weight and is primarily for their benefit, to help them practice, and then the HW does get graded pretty liberally. In some classes it makes sense to have a project component or a programming assignment, which are fun for me to create and for the students to do, and these carry more weight. For graduate students, I have original homework problems and projects, and more often take-home exams over in-class ones.  Grad courses are fun as you get to work with examples that are not quite well-behaved mathematically, and with a little programming you can get great insight into some nontrivial but highly instructive problems… But I can really get creative with exam problems, make them instructive and interesting as well as an assessment tool.  

I would say a test is of optimal difficulty if the average is 70-80%. There are variations from class to class, but this has generally held, with perhaps an occasional one in the 60-70% range. When I design, I plan for the 1:3 ratio of the times needed to take the test by me and the students, i.e. I need to be able to do it about 15-16 min for a 50 min exam. In an occasional class, I have had to go with a 1:5 ratio, but luckily not too often.

How do you test your students? What are some aspects of exam creation/administration/grading that you particularly like or dislike? How are the tests in the biomedical sciences? How about the social sciences or humanities?

Monday Night Grumps

I had a really, really long day. I spent 12 hours at work, and much of it on face time. I prepped a class, then taught the class, then spent the next 7 hours meeting with a total of 14 different students: 2 for office hours, 3 who are my research students about various points where they were stuck on their projects, and 9 for an internal examination procedure that is such a freakin’ waste of time that I break out in hives every semester as I have to do it. And then I graded the midterm. So I am very tired and very grumpy, I am late with my annual report, haven’t made much headway in grading the exam, plus there is a paper that we need to revise and resubmit and two more first drafts in the pipeline but I haven’t been able to get to any of it do it because I haven’t been able to dig myself from under the mountain of service and teaching. Too little progress on research makes me very unhappy; it is a key part of my work, one that’s creative, yet I seem to have to do everything else before I can treat myself to some delicious paper writing.

I try to keep it in perspective that I have a really good job at a really good place, and that I have tenure, a good salary, and good graduate students with whom I enjoy working. But when I am tired and grumpy, the things that I try really hard to not think about surface and sometimes get poured into a blog post.

There is relentless pressure from the administration to go get more money, money, money, money. I am usually able to convince myself that it is a good thing to go for external funds, that applying for funding helps differentiate good ideas from bad ones, but I have always held that applying for money is for the purpose of doing research. Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to pretend that the administration actually cares about people doing research at all; they care about research success to the extent to which success brings prominence to the school/college/department and enables you to get even more money.

We constantly talk about money, getting more money, always more more more money. Nobody every shuts up about the goddamn money. If you have a lot of money, people listen to you (even if you have an abysmally low paper per dollar ratio, and even if your citations are nowhere near where they should be).  Now the department can’t cover basic operations because the higher-up administration expects that some of it will be covered by external funds and we are not buying out as much as we can (buyout = you can reduce teaching load by paying a part of your academic-year salary, normally part of the department budget, from external grants).  There is no return from the overheard (overhead =  the 1/3 or more off the top of every grant that the university skims). It is very hard to get matching funds for anything. TA support is asymptotically approaching zero. We will be facing a likely increase in the teaching load. I know, those who are not at R1’s are rolling their eyes and thinking “Boohoo, cry me a river!” But the thing is we are supposed to spend a large amount of time on writing grants and doing research. Now the time to do research is getting squeezed out from all sides — more teaching, more service, more idiotic paperwork of all sorts (the staff has been decimated so we are ll our own secretaries and accountants and travel agents), more emphasis on getting grants so we can not only give the overhead to the university but also buy out from teaching, which we have to do because the loads were increased to make us to spend more money just to reduce it back to the levels before, and only so we’d have more time to write more grants.

The push in recent years towards going big, going bigger, growing, building centers, building consortia, has become relentless. I hate that model of doing science, I was part of one center for a long time and it’s an administrative nightmare; for the people who use the shared facilities it’s probably more worthwhile, but, for me, it was one student worth of money, yet with a staggering time commitment and paperwork and constant reports and advisory committee presentations, all of which took way more time than my considerably larger and less bullshit-heavy single-investigator grants. Plus the politics was just ridiculous, and the potential for getting screwed over on account of money was tremendous. There are several colleagues with whom I will never collaborate based on what I learned about them during my time in the center; probably goes both ways.

But these are multi-million-dollar centers, which means they bring multi-million-dollar overhead to the university, along with the fame and prestige for the PI who is a big salesman in charge. I don’t begrudge the people who are good at doing this type of work, I really don’t, more power to them; being able to swing it in these  biggest of leagues is not a common trait. What pisses me off is that there seems to be no place any more for a person who has a medium-sized group and brings in enough money to sustain a research program, and then actually works with group members on addressing the proposed problems. This modus operandi seems to be headed for extinction, as it means you are not superstar material. Since when have thinking about and actually doing science become irrelevant for, you know, science? Sometimes I feel like I am in this vortex in which it’s all money, preliminary results to get more money, then more money, more preliminary results, and where finishing good hypothesis-driven work is completely irrelevant, especially in terms of how much sway you have in your local habitat.

On an unrelated note, I am having a really tough class this semester. It’s the same course as last semester, where I had great rapport with the students. This semester, you can hear a pin drop in the classroom. Everyone is completely quiet, it’s  very hard to get a peep out of anyone, no matter how much I try to engage them. There is a kid in the back who drives me crazy by constantly texting in class. This class is an elective, why are you even here if you are not paying attention? Why are you in class if you don’t want to learn? What are your parents paying for?

The class seems to be even more poorly prepared mathematically than the class last semester. I try to keep myself chipper, and I know they are young and they can learn and they weren’t educated all that well, but it is so frustrating not being able to teach them this advanced material because we are forever getting stuck with getting algebraic expressions to a common denominator, or pointing out that i^2=-1 and thus -i=1/i (i is the imaginary number).  Usually I talk myself into “it’s not a big deal” mode, but sometimes it’s really hard.

I hate it that we shelter the students from math so much; everyone is always apologizing for serving them any math at all. There is a derivation that we did in class today that they easily could have done freshman or sophomore year. They say it was sort of shown to them but they were told to just remember the end formulas, and they did. Nobody had any idea about the assumptions that resulted in the formula and they looked bored as we went into the details. Considering that the material coming up is going to be considerably more abstract, I am bracing for some difficult months ahead…