Notes from the Road 4

(I am unusually grouchy today, so calibrate accordingly.)

Many speakers are really not very good. Most, in fact.

No matter how cool your slides are, nothing helps if you are an anemic speaker, boring as hell and unable to make a point.

This one guy was speaking very, very slowly, ending every sentence with lowered intonation, even when asking a rhetorical question. And every time he’d open his mouth, there was this annoying “plyah” lip smacking sound.

I know people get colds and coughs, dry mouths, allergies, and whatnot. I don’t even understand why this ticks me off, but it does: why do people have to stop to drink water during a 20-30 min talk? Seriously, you have to take a sip 10 min into a talk? Don’t you ever teach? Do you stop to drink water throughout a lecture? Sheesh.

It’s interesting to note how former young rising stars have become considerably fatter and middle-aged. And perhaps not quite the stars they were rising to be.

The green laser pointer is a dangerous weapon of mass distraction. Many people have unsteady hands, owing to age or nervousness; pointing at something on the screen usually results in a crazy dance of a bright green dot. It’s good there are no cats in the audience.


I am amazed at some of the work my European colleagues do. It is technically good work, don’t get me wrong, but there is no way they would be able to keep working on such esoteric stuff for so long anywhere in the US; there simply would not be any funding for them. I know that in some (perhaps many) European countries the professors don’t have to pay for PhD students or any of their own salary, but can apply for grants to cover postdocs and travel. Having baseline institutional support for students without fearing you’d completely go studentless due to the boom-bust nature of funding in the US definitely has a bearing on the type of projects you can embark on. Whenever I have a new idea, something I would like to do, the first question is “How am going to get money to do that?” Often the answer is “There is no way I will ever get that funded,” which means I don’t pursue it despite interest.

As much as I hate the idea that I don’t get to work on some interesting topics because the current funding climate is not conducive to supporting them,  there is something to be said for the exercise of grant writing: having to pull your thought together, think longer term, and convince other people that what you do is correct, important, and novel (dare I say “transformative”?) is not necessarily a bad thing. Proposal writing definitely forces you to clarify your thinking. Some ideas are not very important and should not be pursued. If the funding rates were 30% or so, then I believe the fundability would have a strong correlation with importance. These days, the 10% or less funding rates at the NSF are simply too low and too much good science doesn’t get done.

I resent the fact that I continuously have to think about (read: scout for) new funding opportunities. There is no time to just think and do science, because you blink and the 3-year-grant has expired.


At the workshop last week, I made a comment on how next time I hope there would be at least another woman present. A student said “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” I didn’t want to tear him a new a$$hole or come off as an unhinged harpy, so I didn’t press on the ridiculousness of his claim: the fact that someone is used to something, i.e., no longer surprised by it, doesn’t make whatever they are used to right. Just because something is routine doesn’t mean that it should not be fixed.

I am definitely used to being the only or one of very few women around in technical meetings. Sure, people usually notice me, and I hear that getting noticed is important. However, they usually start by assuming I am someone’s significant other or someone’s student or postdoc (getting older helps with the latter). The fact that someone notices me doesn’t mean they think I am a worthwhile scientist, and there is a big jump from being noticed to being remembered for the right reasons and then to being extended an invitation to present your work.

Dudes, dudes, everywhere.



Notes from the Road 2

* I am in one of the most famous and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have visited it before. It is a lovely European city. It is not unlike the city I was born in.

I find I have no desire to live here, ever. I find the buildings are old, the apartments small. Everything is very expensive.

It’s interesting how a place — the US, for me — can start to feel more like home by way of every other place becoming less and less appealing by comparison.
When I first moved to the US, I longed for home. Then for a while I imagined I could live in a more prosperous version of home, somewhere in the first-world countries of Europe.
Now I don’t long for my ancestral home, and I don’t envision myself anywhere in Europe.  I have been irreversibly and thoroughly Americanized.

But I admit, I would not mind coming here or elsewhere for a sabbatical, mostly to improve my German, which has become quite rusty. I used to be able to carry a conversation or watch TV in German; now I fear my limit is ordering food or getting transportation.

* It is very hot outside. As I seem to keep forgetting, air-conditioning is far from ubiquitous in Europe. My hotel had it, but the seminar room where I spent most of the two days didn’t and neither did the restaurants we went to. I have felt sticky non-stop. The airport is judiciously cooled — e.g. not in the toilet stalls, but yes around the sinks (because we really want that $hit to stink, don’t we?). The check-in and gate areas are air-conditioned, but still pretty warm by most US-airport standards.

* I had forgotten how numerous the immigrants from the Middle East are in Europe. I look at those poor fully draped and veiled women roasting in this heat and humidity, and then look at their male “guardians” in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts… Inhumane.

* Having lived in the American Midwest for over a decade, I have access to very good and varied local beer; I am very particular about my beer. Yesterday’s trip to a Biergarten (in case it’s not obvious, it’s a beer garden, basically the restaurant part of a brewery) was disappointing beer-wise, but very fun company-wise.

* I gave a talk and spent two pretty intense days at a technical workshop with several people who work with a very niche technique, one that I also work with (among others). I really enjoy this aspect of science, where we really get together and openly share what we think the problems are, and we brainstorm ideas and talk about real solutions. We actually managed to tease out a few technical nitty-gritty details over food and drinks. I love when that happens. There may be some collaborative papers emerging from the workshop, which is what I would consider travel money well spent.

* The older I am, the more I enjoy talking about science. I think it has to do with me knowing more and, perhaps more importantly, with me believing I know a lot, having very specific opinions, and being confident about articulating and defending them.

* Whenever I think I am hot stuff, or when I think I am a worthless piece of turd, I should make myself fly somewhere, preferably far away and with a long layover. As much as I hate the hassle of travel and generally being on planes, I love airports and engaging in a favorite sport: people watching. So many folks, all different, all so important and yet so unimportant. It reminds me that I am just one puny human. I could vanish this instant and the world would keep spinning; no one except my immediate family would give a $hit. I personally spend too much time in my head, taking myself too seriously. Being reminded of my own irrelevance is strangely liberating.

* As has always been my experience, even when I was a student, graduate students magically become more productive when the PhD advisor leaves town. Sadly, this phenomenon does not take place when I am in town but ignore them. Thus far, I have received 2 revised drafts to look at while traveling and I will be Skyping with two students today and tomorrow evening.

* Off to board a flight to another European metropolis, where I am to give another talk and attend another conference. And I am very much looking forward to the excellent beer!

Notes from the Road

* Travel sucks. Sucks balls, sucks a$$. Sometimes it also sucks scabs, nose hair, warts, and bunions. I got a grand total of 3.25 hrs of sleep last night, got up early to catch a flight; I would not be this comatose even after jet-lag, and I am still in the US.

* Being at conferences is always an exercise in perpetual physical discomfort for me. Often there is not enough leg room; luckily that’s not an issue this time. I am always freezing in conference rooms, and today was worse than I’ve felt in a long time. It’s really hot outside and unbelievably cold inside. Why do they have to blast the A/C down to 60 degrees? I had long sleeves and a light sweater and was still thinking of going back to the room for a serious sweatshirt. Some people should be stripped of their thermostat-fiddling privileges.

* I heard three plenary talks today. Two were of the historical-perspective kind and one of the looking-into-the-future kind. All were nice.  They also featured, in a completely unexpected turn of events (not),  reasonably famous old white dudes, some of whom reminisced of their life and times  next door to even more famous and perhaps even older (and whiter?) and possibly deceased dudes, to whom they referred as “Bill” or “Tom” to emphasize familiarity and thus self-aggrandize by proxy. I used to be intimidated by such schenanigans, by how I would never find myself in the thick of things like these people had done, stirring the direction of a whole field; now I am just lightly miffed. One of the big revelations that came to me in recent years, and it didn’t take me even a decade of professordom to grasp it (maybe I am really not that smart), is that the vast majority of  scientists — no matter how accomplished and how well recognized — are painfully insecure; some readily show it, some mask it by extreme aggression. This also means that some people on whose support you count will not support because they are too busy feeling unrecognized and ignored themselves, which makes them self-absorbed.

* A luminary of the field died last month, I’d just heard. He did so much for the field and was so important and so well recognized. And now he’s dead, just as dead as any Joe Schmoe the bacon-burger enthusiast. Sometimes I think I should spend all of my days devouring bacon burgers. With beer.

* A question for the blogosphere: How much time should one (the  professor/group leader/PI) spend with own group members when at conferences? When I was a grad student, there were usually several grad students from the group at every conference, and we hung out together. I would see my advisor occasionally. My advisor was a big important dude, and would sometimes introduce us to some of his buddies (not sure that it helped, but he did do it). When we went to dinner together, he’d always be the life of the party and we his captive audience. I always thought he was fascinating but at some point, after I’d grown up, I just saw him as tiring and not all that interesting.

I am at a conference with several of my students. It’s a big conference and not one we usually go to, so there aren’t many of my friends around to whom I could introduce the younglings. There are enough of my students for them to happily hang out together (I see they met other students already) and I don’t want to cramp their style, but I don’t think I should avoid them altogether (and I don’t). Recently, when two students and I were at another conference, we did go to dinner once with several other folks (profs and students), that was nice and not too taxing on anyone; we did catch up with each other briefly at coffee breaks, but I left them to do their thing for the most part.  But I do wonder what the right amount of socializing or interacting in general is common. Because of the power differential there is always a danger that I’ll just start monologuing and nobody will stop me, as happened with my advisor, even if I am boring the hell out of them. Also, socializing is socializing, and my students are young guys while I am a middle-aged woman, so we don’t have natural conversational topics outside of work; also, I like the professional relationship and don’t want to get into any personal topics that could make either party uncomfortable. I might be curious to know more about my students as people, I don’t want to be intrusive; again, the power differential.

So what say you, blogosphere PIs, how much do you hang out with your students at conferences? Students and postdocs, do you want to spend any time with the prof?


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.

Following Up with New Connections

In a comment to my recent post, “Musings on Networking,” TheGrinch asked:

Any advice on how to follow up / be in touch with new connections?

How to follow up depends a little on what type of interaction you had. With some people you just had a nice brief chat, but you didn’t connect either professionally or personally. I would say you don’t have to follow up with them at all, just be friendly if you meet them again somewhere in the future.

If you connected with someone personally, like if you are both grad students and went bar-hopping, then just do the usual friendly stuff that you young folks do :): email, text, Facebook, tweet. Whatever feels comfortable.

But if you connected with someone mostly professionally, if you do similar research, that’s actually quite easy because scientists are huge geeks in the best sense of the word: they are passionate about their work and LOVE to find someone else who shares their passion. In this case, a few days after the conference, I usually send an email saying something like this (unless I get a similar email from the other party first!):

Hi NewSciBuddy,

This is Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica. It was a real pleasure to meet you last week at the 15th International Conference of Awesome. I enjoyed hearing about your research on superawesome spins and ultraawesome laser pulses. As promised, I am sending you a PDF of my presentation, as well as the preprints of the Glam Mag and Reputable Society Journal papers that I mentioned when we spoke; they are about to come out in the next month. 

[Optional 1: Invite  them to come give a talk at your place, such as “Would you like to come give a talk at UNC? Our seminar series is on Tuesdays. If you are interested, send me a few dates that work.” If they tentatively invited you to their institution and you really want to go, you can throw it out there and say “About me coming to give a talk at your place, I could do mid-April or early May. Let me know which dates would work. Thanks again!

Optional 2: Insert joke about weather/sport/food in exotic locales/travel/something not entirely technical that you might have discussed.]

Best wishes/regards, 


When someone I know sends me their papers, I always at least briefly take a look, and I think most people do.  I have several colleagues with whom I have a relationship where we will just send each other our new papers that we think the other one might find interesting, accompanied by  a few pleasantries and general information about life (for instance, if you send your new papers, you might also add that you are moving institutions). Then, we hang out whenever we meet at conferences again, but usually not all the time, a few meals or coffee breaks. With a few colleagues the relationship has become a tad closer, in that we will actually send each other emails to the effect of “Long time no see, what have you been up to?” In that case, I would say mentioning that you got married or pregnant or that someone close had passed away would probably be OK. A couple of my European colleagues send me Christmas cards. With quite a few I have an open invitation to come and give a talk whenever I am in Europe, which I did take advantage of once or twice.

Also, if you see the other person’s new paper in a journal, that’s an excellent excuse to ping them  (“Just saw your paper in Nature, congratulations!” ) The same holds if you see they won an award — be happy for them and let them know you are!

Overall, try to keep it friendly and light, perhaps a little aloof.  You certainly shouldn’t push anything. 

I will shut up now and let others chime in.

What say you, blogosphere: Once you have met new people at a conference, how do you stay in touch?