science

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!

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest (Adventures in Grading)

In science, a potential answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But when it comes to teaching and learning, and especially grading student exams, there is wrong and then there is WROOONG.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need to compute a certain distance that has to do with the behavior of electrons in a nanostructure.

Correct answer: 160 nm

Incorrect answers:

Wrong: 300 nm (wrong, but within the order of magnitude)

More wrong: 1.6 μm  or 1.6 nm (wrong order of magnitude, but still meaningful, within the scales of nanostructures)

Nonsensically wrong: 1.6 m (height of an adult woman) or 1.6 fm (size of an atomic nucleus; fm=10^(-15) m). While it may seem that mistaking the 160-nm length for a macroscopic height of a woman is more silly and thus more wrong than the nuclear size, the latter is actually “wronger” because it is 8 orders of magnitude off (versus 7 orders of magnitude for the former).

Two things that we don’t teach our students enough, that we perhaps don’t insist enough on, are minding units and building intuition about orders of magnitude. They are amazing, priceless tools for sanity checking.

Funding Acknowledgements

Here’s a pretty common scenario in regards to coauthorship on papers from my group. Student A works on a certain project for which I have funding from a federal agency, grant GR1. I, Prof X, also draw some salary support from that grant, so you can say that I am funded for my work on said project by that salary on GR1. But, in addition to Student A and myself, there’s also Student B who does something else and is funded by grant GR2, but has given some code to Student A and has spent a fair bit of time training and troubleshooting with Student A by virtue of having related expertise and broad interests. Also, we have Postdoc, who again has his own projects, but has on many occasions shot the breeze with Student A and has contributed some key insights, again because they have related expertise. Postdoc is funded by GR3.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that everyone here should be a coauthor, and usually the author list will be: Student A, Postdoc, Student B, and Prof. X (or Postdoc and Student B change places, depending on who was actually more instrumental in the paper coming together).

Now comes the tricky part. How do you acknowledge the funding?

The reason I am asking is that there seems to be quite a tightening in the federal oversight to ensure there is no duplication of work, and several program managers have communicated that people have recently gotten into legal trouble for seemingly (or actually) getting money for the same work twice. As a result, program managers are being very specific in terms of how the acknolwedgements on grants are supposed to be written in order to avoid ambiguity.

In the case of the paper above, this is what I would write. “This work was primarily supported by Agency 1, grant GR1 (Student A and Prof. X). Partial support was provided by Agency 2, grant GR2 (Postdoc) and Agency 3, grant GR3 (Student B).” Apparently, this way of acknowledging funding is borderline OK, so I hear, so I am legally likely fine, but instead of separating by who is funded by what, they would much prefer it if we delineated by the work done under each funding string rather than the persons funded.

This is what really bothers me in regards to the type of the work I do. Maybe it’s not quite so dire in lab work, or I could be imagining, but in experimental work people can actually perform parts of complicated experiments for one another, so you could say “transmission-electron microscopy was funded by grant 11, crystal growth was funded by grant 22,” because the student who’s an expert in crystal growth of that particular compound grows materials for everyone and is funded by 22, while the transmission-electron microscopy whiz is funded by grant 11. But when you do theory and computation, all the actual work is done by you. It’s not like anyone will sit down and write a thousand lines of code just for you. They may give you chunks of their code if appropriate, but how do you acknowledge that? Maybe I should write “the work on adaptive meshing for Complicated Partial Differential Equation was funded by grant 33,” when all that means is that Student B gave his routine to Student A and spent some time discussing how it would be implemented for Student A’s project. Also, we talk and draw on the board and look at figures a lot. When you do theory and especially computation, literally nothing can happen unless you really, really know what you are doing — there is no simulation unless you actually write the code; there is no physical system to probe, you first have to (reliably!) create it on a computer, only then can you play with it — so it is absolutely critical to read and talk and scrutinize and brainstorm and test and test and test… And finally build some intuition. If talking with someone has helped you dramatically to build your intuition, and they have contributed key insights into your project, how do you acknowledge that? “Coming up with the explanation following Figs. 2-4 was funded in part by grant GR2?” “The work that led to us all finally understanding why that curve had a crossover was funded by 44?”
(And don’t even get me started on having short papers and having to devote a whole paragraph to elaborate acknowledgements.)

Now, you could ask — why aren’t your postdoc and Student B actually compensated for their time spent on this project from the grant that funds it, GR1?
Because I have better things to do than track every second of every group member’s mental activity. Also, it’s completely insane and at odds with how science is done. My group members each have their own projects to which they devote most of their time, and those projects have funds associate with them, which are acknowledged as primary support on papers where the appropriate group member is first author. But they should be able to talk to whomever they like, and they should definitely be able to talk as much as they want about work with their fellow group members. That’s what team science is all about — we are smarter and more productive when we work together.

I don’t know, maybe there are people who double- or triple-dip. I certainly don’t and I think most people don’t. I really don’t see how I would even get funded for work with too much overlap anyway, there are multiple points during peer review to make sure that doesn’t happen; we certainly scrutinize overlap during NSF panels. It really irks me that now I have to think about creative ways to convince some new layers of federal bureaucracy that we are not abusing their funds, lest we get into legal trouble.

Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?