Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Dressing for Success and the Scientist

Recently, Buckingham Palace issued a statement providing guidelines for attire for reporters who wished to have access to the Royal Family. This made me think about the idea of dressing for a job or role in general. I think this is something a lot of scientists have trouble with probably because they think that their science should speak for itself. Or maybe they just don’t like being around other people. The stereotype of the introverted physicist is not based entirely in fantasy.

So you get people who wear jeans and a t-shirt to give a scientific talk. One friend of mine thought it was hilarious to give his conference talks wearing what we affectionately called his “fart shirt.” Plenty of my former colleagues never dressed up beyond a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. These were the same people who thought it was amusing that I didn’t wear jeans to the lab for at least my first year in grad school.

Since then, I’ve always had to balance my sense of style with my image as a scientist. There’s this idea that if you dress too well, your knowledge is somehow suspect. And yet, in the rest of the world, your outward appearance is what communicates that you are a competent individual. Grad students might get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt to give conferences at scientific conferences, but once they’re looking for a job outside of grad school, they might wonder why they get passed over if they show up to interviews in casual attire. The fact is that when we meet someone, their external appearance and maybe a piece of paper with a resume is the only thing we have to judge.

Since getting my PhD, I’ve gone a slightly less traditional route for postdoctoral positions. I applied for government jobs, which meant I had to dress not only professionally, but wear a full suit. And because government tends to be conservative, as a woman I had to make sure to get a skirt suit. And when I looked at the line of grad students waiting to get into the career fair, I realized that I was probably the best-dressed woman in the bunch.

Dressing up rather than down is also a good way to prevent people from assuming you are younger and less experienced than you are. When I had a summer internship, I worked closely with a postdoc who wore khakis and an un-tucked, too-large polo shirt every day. I tried to dress nicely because I was in my first “real” job. As a result, people would frequently assume he was the student and I was the post-doc, which irritated him to no end, but it goes to show the importance of looking your best.

So I guess my point is that even if you’re a scientist, you should probably think about how you dress. It doesn’t make you any less of a scientist, and it just might improve how people perceive you outside of the tiny group of experts that you think you want to impress.

Building the World You Want To Live In

I’m currently in the process of building a new experiment. It’s a different experience for me because I’ve always been the person who joined an in-progress project, not the person who was given an empty table and a pile of equipment and told “Go!” It’s definitely had its challenges, but it’s also made me think a lot.

About policy and outreach.

Yeah, it seems a bit weird, but I realized that the same skills that go into building a lab go into shaping policies towards science and outreach. I’m building the world I want to live in.

When I was in graduate school, I found out that grad students at my institution had no formal access to any kind of maternity leave. Now, I had no children, or even plans of having children any time soon. In fact, I was on the pill at the time. But I thought that seemed like a bad idea. I mean, pregnancy is something that can happen even if you don’t mean it to, and the only official option was to take a leave of absence. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that our stipends and health insurance benefits were tied to our student status. For many of us, our student loan deferrals or even visas to be in the US were tied to our student status. So a pregnant graduate student could see her insurance evaporate, all her loans come due or her visa revoked, right at the same time she also loses her meager income. It doesn’t seem like a friendly way to retain women in their mid-to-late 20s.

I also had a friend who was a new father and a university senator. I mentioned this issue to him and worked to help him research what a graduate student parental leave would cost the university so he could draft a proposal to implement such a policy. I still have no children, but I wanted a policy in place before I needed it.

How is this like building a lab, you might ask? Well, in the case of maternity leave, I saw a problem that might arise for me (and others) in the future and worked to correct it before it became a problem. In the policy world, lawmakers have to do the same thing: try to anticipate problems and solve them before they become a problem. When building a lab, there are certain things you know from the outset you will need: space, power, general equipment. Then, you look at your specific experiment and figure out what you will need immediately, a month from now, six months from now. You may even try to predict the direction in which the research will go and order equipment ahead of time so you’re not waiting on things to ship.

But then, sometimes, something just comes up. And when something comes up, the first thing you do is put a patch on it, try to get things up and running again as soon as possible. Kind of like passing a CR. But you don’t stop there. You then figure that thing-that-came-up into your plans and try to prevent the problem from happening again before the temporary patch fails. In the same way, some policies that go into place are not necessarily meant to be immediately effective, but will prevent a larger problem from coming up further down the road. The most effective fixes are the ones that the next grad student (or generation) will never know you needed.

In that way, my interest in outreach and policy comes from a desire to see science succeed unimpeded into the next generation. I write for general audiences, and give lab tours to a variety of people, in addition to doing my research because science will not succeed if only scientists are interested in it. I realize that it’s all scientists’ jobs to get as many people excited about science as possible. Only then can we use our skills to help shape a world in which we can all live happily.

#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

Science and Babies

A new study about women in the sciences has come out and it suggests that women don’t have it so bad. I find the language used particularly interesting. The takeaway message is that women who choose to pursue upper-level science careers don’t face any discrimination that their male counterparts escape. This statement is interesting for two reasons: one, it suggests that the societal pressures that prevent a female from pursuing upper-level sciences mysteriously evaporate once she reaches a certain level, and two, it ignores the experiential differences between being a male and being a female.

This topic has been on my mind lately anyway as I near another birthday over the age of 30. Thirty is an interesting milestone for a woman because it’s the number that tends to get thrown around when people talk about declining fertility. Thirty-five is sometimes quoted by those who are feeling more generous. Either way, the baby clock, it seems, is ticking. So I have to ask myself: Do I want a baby?

And this is an important and relevant question because having children is a biologically different experience for a man versus a woman. Beyond societal constructs that pressure women disproportionately to stay home with children, there is a physical cost. Even before the actual birth, pregnancy seems to be no picnic, and even the healthiest woman can end up with a complication that puts her on bed rest. And then, once the baby comes, there is wear and tear on the body, as well as the dilemma of breast feeding. Sure, a woman can pump, but even that requires more breaks than the researchers I know tend to take. And rather than socializing and batting around ideas, the new mother would be secluded in an area where her breasts and associated machinery won’t offend delicate sensibilities. That is, you’re not going to be pumping in the lab or coffee room. So not only are you taking more breaks, but those you do take aren’t community-oriented. This could lead to a perception that the woman is less invested in her work.

That’s where this research gets tricky. There are a whole lot of ways in which women can experience discrimination that defy quantification. It goes back to my post about a woman being described as “not aggressive enough.” Is this code for “too feminine” or a legitimate critique?

This is why, during a conversation about future babies with D the other day, I lamented, “All the experimental physicists I know with children are men!” I’m glad to have an impending exception to that rule, but the exceptions are few and far between. Perhaps because it’s easier to abandon research when it becomes complicated with an infant’s demand on a woman.

What Is a Physicist?

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.

The Culture of a Physics Group

One of the most striking things I’ve learned in the past couple of years of post-doctoral work has nothing to do with the lab. I’ve been learning about the cultural differences between different groups, as well as between different disciplines in physics. I spent seven years in graduate school, for most of which I was a research assistant in an atomic physics group. Then, I graduated and started a postdoc in a condensed matter group. And now, I’m back in atomic physics. And one of the major things I noticed was how different the scientific and investigative culture is between atomic and condensed matter. I’ve also had to adjust to specific differences particular to each group.

The first group I worked in was as a graduate student. The group was mostly graduate students with the advisor (a professor at the university) and an occasional handful of postdocs. I joined the group when the senior grad student had been there only for a few years, so we had several years together to bond as a group. We were a bit of a gang. We showed up to events at the department together, usually early so we were the first in line for food. We were generally social and outgoing. When we went to conferences, we were the ones bar-hopping and bringing beer back to someone’s room to play XBOX till the wee hours. And I don’t think it was just the students. When a new professor joined the group, I fielded a phone call from someone looking for my adviser because they were heading out to the bar. It calmed down a bit as certain key instigators left the group, but we always had an outgoing mindset in the group. We went out to lunch in a group (a herd of sorts) every Friday. We tried to institute a tradition in which when someone graduated, they had to go out to the bar after and have a drink for every year they spent in grad school.

After grad school, I slowly lost touch with a lot of the guys who had gotten out before I did. And then I joined another group. A quieter group. Culturally, we went out to lunch maybe once a year, usually to celebrate someone starting or leaving. When we went out to lunch on my first day, the other postdoc told me it was the first time he’d ever seen our boss eat out. We would occasionally go to a happy hour during a conference, but it was lower-key. And generally consisted of one drink each.

In my current position, I haven’t quite figured out the culture. Yes, we have a weekly group lunch, and I’ve already been invited to a social gathering in the first month of living there. But all the other postdocs have young children, so it seems unlikely we’ll be doing boilermakers or shotgunning beers.

Even more intriguing is the fact that atomic physicists and condensed matter physicists seem to approach physics differently. Moving from one to the other and back again showed me that. I spent the last two years in a very device-driven field. Conference talks and conversations tend to be about the current device, how you designed it, how you think you could do better. One group spent a year trying to replicate a particularly good device. Two groups square off against each other when one accuses the other of only showing data from “hero” devices — i.e., those that work the best — and ignoring the rest. While that is the general thrust of the field, to implement the best of a certain type of device, exploration of basic physics concepts seems to take a back seat to the product.

Then, a year and a half into this position, I started writing a proposal to get another postdoc in an atomic physics group. All of a sudden, I’m back to thinking about the Bloch sphere, and abstract concepts in quantum mechanics. It’s no longer just about the stuff you can do with your hands in the lab. The day-to-day involves a lot more conversations about fundamental concepts of quantum physics because that’s something atomic physicists aim to study. But apart from that, there’s a sense that you want to learn more than just what you do daily in the lab. You read papers about anything remotely related to quantum, not just papers about your specific project. It’s an attitude that I like a lot, which is why I returned.

But it was intimidating to realize that I’d have to go back to being as well-versed in the theory as the theorists. And that might give me a hangover more than all those Bud Lights at conferences.

When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

The Theater of Science

Anyone who knows me personally or reads my cooking blog knows that I’ve gotten into a community theater play. Yes, for the first time since college, I’m going to be on the stage. It’s a fun and exhilarating experience, although I joke that giving presentations at scientific conferences, or giving tours of the various labs in which I’ve worked has provided more than enough practice for presenting a persona in front of a group of strangers.

I firmly believe that anyone considering pursing science as a career should also consider taking a theater class. Or going out for a play. Or performing improv on the Metro. Maybe not that last one.

Anyway, I was backstage chatting with my castmates and one of them mentioned that she had met a woman who was studying kinesthesiology in one of her acting classes. This young woman was so petrified of speaking in public it was affecting her ability to give lectures in front of students. So she took the initiative to put herself through an acting class to give herself some skills and confidence in that arena. My castmate said she was obviously painfully shy, but made it through. I hope she felt some benefit outside the classroom.

So I joked when I started going to auditions again that I may have an almost 10-year gap on my acting resume, but really, I’ve been continuing to play the part of a cool, confident scientist who knows exactly what she’s talking about every time I get up to give a talk or lab tour. But it’s not entirely a joke. There’s a calm that comes in the knowledge that, no matter what’s going on in the “real world,” you can put on a persona and just speak your piece.

Because being a scientist is not just about doing your research. It’s not enough to be brilliant in the lab, not really. You need to be able to communicate your research to other people. Because the explanation will be so much richer coming from the person who fully understands the research. And you have to be able to read your audience, know when they’re trying and failing to understand you, and when they’re just tired or wishing your talk were over so they could get lunch. You have to learn not to get flustered by a disengaged audience, and how to re-engage them when you can. You have to be able to have the confidence to explain at any level to people of any background. And a lot of that is acting. Even when you’re about to burst into tears because nothing works, you have to be able to put on an engaging face and sell your research if a tour comes through. Even when you broke a major part of your experiment the week before, you have to go to that major conference and perform your conference talk.

And that’s where acting experience comes into science. It’s not about making things up. It’s about communicating your excitement for your work effectively.

Jenn’s Mom Does Science!

This is a quick one, but I thought I’d share with you, if only to illustrate something about where my love of inquiry came from.

2014032895094347

That, my friends, is known as an ice spike, and apparently it’s a fairly rare phenomenon. Apparently, my mother managed to make one by refilling the ice tray at work. She snapped a picture of it, and started Googling. My mom loves to Google. When I was a summer intern, she Googled the group before “parents day” and managed to ask a couple really neat questions while I was showing her around. The point is, she doesn’t really care what she already knows; she wants to learn.

She’s the kind of person who, when faced with something unknown and kinda cool, will put her effort into figuring it out. She likes to explore new things, whether it’s foods or places or ideas. And that kind of inquiring mind is exactly what she gave me. And probably has something to do with my choice of career path.