Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blogoversary Bye Bye

One year ago today, I started this blog. I subsequently moved it elsewhere, for a number of reasons, but then moved it back here for a number of different reasons. If you managed to follow me this far, congratulations! Are you willing to follow me still further?

I've never really been able to find my voice on this blog. Part of it has to do with blogging non-anonymously. I feel like I can't be as candid as I would like about issues in my life, particularly the deep soul searching that I would like to be able to share with people, because I know I personally get a lot out of honest, difficult discussions about juggling science and family and life. But given that I'll be frantically applying for jobs over the next couple of years, I don't think it's wise to post about self-doubt and indecision in a place where search committee members might stumble over it.

So, where do I go from here?

Well, I think the archived posts will stick around for a little bit, anyway. Some of them may disappear without warning, however.

I do plan to keep blogging, but elsewhere. I will continue to update my livejournal blog, which has the convenient feature of locking posts away from prying eyes, and does not have my real name associated with it. I also have plans in the works for blogging about women in astronomy under my full real name elsewhere. If you want more updates, comment here or send me email, and I'll tell you exactly what's up.

Anyway, it's been fun, but I'm moving on. Happy Solstice, everyone!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I should stop taking everything so personally, I know

Today, the universe is telling me I can't print anything.  Or maybe the printers just hate me.  Okay, to be fair, they seem to hate everyone in the lab today.

Perhaps today's message is one of environmentalism.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Ever get the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something?

Lately, it's been telling me the following:

You don't have to keeping doing what you've been doing.
You don't have to follow the narrow trajectory that's been laid out before you.
Follow your desires.
Remember what's important in life.
The time for change is now.
Don't be afraid.

I feel like I'm gathering myself now for something big, but I'm not sure yet what it is.

Also: an apt metaphor for leaving academia, from Bitch, PhD

Sunday, December 7, 2008

JFOS day 2

One of yesterday's talk was talking about cell sheets and their medical uses. One of the slides compared cell sheets to traditional grafts with an illustration of shabu-shabu versus a hunk of steak. Urk. A few minutes later, he showed us a movie of eye surgery that was much too graphic for all of us non-clinical scientists. Double Urk.

I've had a number of interesting conversations with people here, ranging from social science to particle physics to general career advice. The message I'm getting from this meeting is that being well-versed in a number of subjects is intrinsically good, and maybe it's okay for me to go for breadth of knowledge rather than depth. Maybe I should be so afraid of making the leap to studying a different topic, and in the end it might well be good for me.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

JFOS day 1 addendum

My favorite comment from dinner last night: "This meeting is a lot like reading an issue of Science cover-to-cover, regardless of subject."

Friday, December 5, 2008

JFOS day 1

They keep us pretty busy at this meeting. They bussed us over to the conference center at 8:30 this morning, and bussed us back after dinner at around 8pm. And there's some kind of informal interaction session going on right now, that I'm playing hookey from. Tomorrow, the busses come at 7:30am. Sheesh!

I estimate that there are about 80-90 participants at this meeting. Going through the participant roster, I counted 17 women. That sounds about par for the course. Apparently they did consider gender when inviting participants, at any rate.

All the literature seems to be going out of their way to emphasize how bright and promising we young scientists here at the meeting are. But instead of making me feel pleased with myself, it's making me feel disgruntled. If I'm so brilliant, why don't I have a faculty job yet? I've sent out a decent number of applications over the years, so what's up? Why won't anybody hire me? I tell people what I work on, and most of them say, ooh, that's a hot topic right now. But when I look at the job listings, I don't seem to fall neatly into any of the categories. It's as if I were a cat herder, and all anyone wants is cat groomers or sheep herders. I just can't win.

Bah. This unexpectedly turned into a rant. Sorry about that.

Quack quack

There are ducks swimming in the hotel pool right now.

For some reason, this strikes me as really funny.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Still looking for the sun

Made it to California just fine.

The weather was good about half the flight over, which was cool because I love watching the land change below when I fly cross country. I find the regular grids imposed upon organic terrain to be strangely fascinating. The patchwork quilt of the Midwest is beautiful that way. I love the rugged, untamed beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I changed planes in Phoenix, and observed the difference in vegetation in the Southwest versus the Midwest. There were these odd rectangular patches that stood out from the rest of the terrain because they were bright green, almost teal, in contrast to the brown land around them. Also, they were extremely uniform in texture, but maybe that was just the effect of my vantage point. I had to wonder, what are they growing out there in the desert, and where are the getting the water from?

It's cooler than I expected it to be here in SoCal. I had to wear my jacket to the reception+dinner that was held on an outdoor terrace. So much for my sun.

I'm putting my game face on and getting ready to pretend to be an extrovert for the next three days. As meh as I'm feeling about having to travel for this conference, I have high hopes. The VP of the NAS said a few words and dinner tonight, and one of her comments was that previous meeting reminded her why she got into science in the first place: it's so much fun! So here's hoping for some inspiration.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

5 things meme

I'm a little late on this meme, but here goes anyway:

5 Things I was doing 10 years ago

1. Getting married.
2. Not talking to my father because I was living "in sin." Until the day of the wedding. Then he started talking to me again.
3. Still taking classes in grad school.
4. Singing in a chorus for the first time since grade school.
5. Buying my first car.

5 Things on my to do list today

(well, today is almost over, but anyway...)
1. Pack my suitcase.
2. Make sure I have everything I need for this conference I'm going to.
3. Work on my application to the APS skills development workshop.
4. Give the cat her thyroid medication.
5. Go to bed.

5 snacks I love

1. Dark chocolate.
2. Chili lime flavored cashews from Trader Joes.
3. Dark chocolate covered nuts.
4. Habeñero flavored pistachios from Trader Joes.
5. Dark chocolate covered dried fruit.

5 things I would do if I were a millionaire

1. Pay off the mortgage.
2. Save for retirement.
3. Save for my kids' college funds.
4. Buy a hybrid or electric convertible two-seater. If only they made them.
5. Work part-time. (A million dollars doesn't go very far anymore...)

5 places I've lived

1. In a co-ed fraternity.
2. Next door to a Catholic high school. In sin.
3. In a flat in England.
4. Across the street from a corn field.
5. At the end of a dead end street.

5 jobs I've had

1. Counselor at a summer math program for geeky gifted high school students.
2. Constructing prototypes for a programmable LEGO brick. (Turns out I can solder really well.)
3. Intern at a computer research lab.
4. Teaching assistant.
5. Postdoc

5 people I'd like to share this meme with

Anybody who read this blog. I don't think there are more than five of you to begin with.

Here comes the sun

I've been awful negative lately in my posts, and it occurred to me that I ought to try to lighten things up a bit.

So instead of agonizing over how much I need to get done before my trip tomorrow, I'm going to try to get excited about it instead. It's the Japanese-American Kavli Frontiers of Science (and no, I am not of Japanese descent).  Basically, I got an invitation out of the blue to attend this symposium, whose premise sounds a lot like, "let's throw a bunch of smart people in a room together and see what happens."  So I said, sure what the heck, as long as they're paying for it. And who doesn't want to go to California in December?

It occurred to me last night that this is the first conference I'm going to where I pretty much won't know anyone else there. Who will I hang out with? Will I find people to eat dinner with? What if they all hate me? ...oh, but I was going to be positive.

I guess the advantage of going to this type of meeting is that it's a lot easier to get excited about my science when I'm talking to people who aren't experts, because I'm always terrified that the experts will see through all the holes in my models and rip it to shreds before my very eyes.  The non-experts tend to ooh and ahh more, which is always gratifying.

And I'm looking forward to seeing the sun, too.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not December Scientiae

I had fully intended to write a post for the December Scientiae, especially since I love reading Isis the Goddess' shoe science blog. This month's topic was "My Science is Way Hotter Than Dr. Isis' Naughty Monkeys Because..." This was a difficult topic for me for two reasons:
(1) I'm not really into fancy shoes. My idea of a nice pair of shoes are sensible, comfortable, and boring.  

Figure 1. Lands' End All-Weather Mocs, available in wide widths, even.

And (2) I'm having difficulty summoning any enthusiasm at all for my research these days, despite the fact that I'm preparing a press release in a few months time.
Figure 2.  Stars.  Thousands of degrees hotter than Dr. Isis' shoes.

I would have like to written a post channeling my inner Goddess, full of self-confidence in my science, in my fashion choices, and in my life choices in general, but it just wasn't working for me.  So instead, I wrote this post:

I've spent a lot of time these days doing some major soul searching.  I've been thinking about alternative career paths. I've mulled over the idea of doing some adjunct teaching for a while. I've spaced out during group meeting pondering leaving astronomy altogether.

I've also done some calculating: I'm the kind of person who functions best on 9-10 hours of sleep each night. I make do on 8 generally. It takes me about an hour to get myself and the kids ready in the morning. Let's say I spend 10 hours a day at work, including the commute each way. That leaves me 5 hours every evening to cook dinner, eat with my family, mother my kids, wife my husband, and do whatever else assorted activities I need to do to get ready for the next day.  Whatever extracurricular activites I do in order to maintain my sanity, whether it be singing in a chorus or reading a book or playing stupid video games, eats into this time. And, of course, there are the evenings spent shuttling kids around to various activities of their own. I also prefer not to work on weekends if I can avoid it at all, because weekends involve still more mothering and wifing and shuttling kids to activities and running errands and etc etc.

Unfortunately, a 40 hour work week is really only part-time for an academic scientist. So does that that mean I don't really have the dedication it takes to be an academic scientist?  And that's why I've been spending so much time in existential angst.

Quite honestly, I do enjoy my day-to-day work. I been getting some pretty spiffy results lately, which I go to show to my advisor/mentor looking for a pat on the head, and he says, "ooh, go do these five other things with it" which is his way of giving you a pat on the head, even if it feels more like he's assigning you another week of work instead.  But the shadow that's looming over everything is the fact that my postdoc has a fixed end date, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to land another position after this one, especially in these uncertain economic times. 

It would probably make me happier to focus more on my short term goals rather than the long term ones, except that I am sending out a few job applications right now, which is forcing me to think about the long term, and it's making me depressed, especially since it seems that I'm already out of the running for at least one of the positions I applied for.  And another two of the searches have already been cancelled.  The astrophysics jobs rumo(u)r mill is both a blessing and a curse.

Friday, November 14, 2008

InaDWriMo: in my dreams

I am woefully behind on my InaDWriMo goal. To be fair, I've been working hard at this paper. 3298 words of IDL scripts, and a whole pile of pretty pictures. And picture is worth 1K words, right? I've got 8 awesome figures for this paper already, so if I count those, I'm already done!


Okay, maybe not.

So let's check on my goals now that November is nearly half done. My goal had been to write 6K each toward a couple of papers in my backlog. I've gotten just over 2K toward one, half of which had already been there. Nothing toward the other one yet, not even spiffy IDL scripts. (Well, there are spiffy IDL scripts, just nothing new since Nov 1.)

What else have I been doing this month?
  • Job applications. This has been my main distraction from writing.
  • Paper on object A.
  • Paper on object B.
  • Poster to present at conference in early December.
  • Abstracts to submit to other conferences.
  • Musical theater. Fun, but doesn't help my CV or publications list.

That leaves out all the other day-to-day activities that are not any less important for being part of my normal routine. Things like taking care of the kids and getting sleep at night.

I'm not on target to meet my stated goal of 12K words of paper writing, but I have managed to get my rear in gear and doing the writing-up that needs to happen on various projects I'm working on. So in that respect, I think InaDWriMo is going along just fine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

California, here I come!

I'm going to California three times in the next three months.  In fact, if it's between the 4th through 7th of December, January or February, it's a good bet I'll be on the West Coast.  

I thought I had a point to make beyond the numerological one, but I've forgotten now.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Summers not over yet

President-elect Obama's team of financial advisors includes one Lawrence Summers, who is also a leading contender to be Treasury Secretary.  His resumé includes a previous stint as Treasure Secretary, and President of Harvard University.  You might recall that as President of Harvard, he made some ill-chosen remarks about the science aptitude of girls and women and was eventually forced to resign that position.  

So here's my question: if one were to protest against Summers for Treasury Secretary, would that be considered a political statement?  It's not quite the same as campaigning for or against someone running for election.  On the other hand, what does Summers' prejudices against women in science have to do with being Treasury Secretary, anyway?

I have to say, I would be a bit disappointed in Obama if he does end up choosing Summers.  It would be like a slap in the face.  If Summers feels that way about women in science, how does he feel about women in finance, which I doubt is any more female-friendly a field than science?  For that matter, why isn't Obama considering more women and minorities for the cabinet?  I really hope that he isn't selling out now that he's made it to the White House.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


It's getting harder and harder for me to maintain the façade that everything is just fine with me, that my research is merrily chugging along and that I'm totally happy in my choice of careers.

In the various Women in Science meetings I've been to over the last few months, the common theme expressed by successful women scientists is that they were always buoyed by their passion for their work.

I'm just not feeling the love right now.

What I'm feeling is a whole lot of fear. Fear that my subject matter is irrelevant. Fear that I'm just not good enough. Fear that I lack the requisite networking skills. Fear that I won't get another job after my postdoc is up. Fear of leaving astronomy, because it's all I know how to do right now. Fear of the overwhelming uncertainty of it all.

There are a few bright spots. I get really excited about the some of the results I get. But then the fear sets in again. What if no one cares? What if it's all wrong?

I hate this time of year: everything is bleak and dark, and it's not just that the trees are losing their foliage and the sun is disappearing, it's also the time that job applications are due. I feel like I'm forcing myself to act excited about my research at the same time I'm putting it out there for everyone to judge, and I'm afraid that everyone will see me as the imposter that I am.

I'm afraid of turning out to be another leak in the pipeline. And the worst part is that I'll never be sure if I've left because I was forced to, or if I just didn't try hard enough. After all, if only I'd tried harder, surely I would have found a way to stay.

In the mean time, I keep going through the motions and working away at writing papers. I am feeling more and more like I am simply tying up loose ends in order to close up shop when I finish out this postdoc. Then, finally, I'll disappear into the unknown...

Friday, November 7, 2008

InaDWriMo: week 1 results

I'm writing generating some really cool looking-figures, thanks to my l33t IDL skillz. Up to 1784 words of scripts. But it doesn't count toward InaDWriMo. Which means I'm sadly behind on making my target of 12K words.

Making figures is very distracting: you can play around forever with changing the font or getting just the the right scale or placing the labels just so or getting that exact shade of blue. I need to get back to dumping words on the page.

Have I mentioned that I really hate writing papers?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ups and Downs

+I continue to write Awesome scripts.  Up to 1339 words of IDL.

-It doesn't count toward InaDWriMo.

-And I haven't written any further text yet.

+I feel pretty good about the job applications I turned in last week.

-I think my various advisors and mentors are subtly suggesting that I'm not cut out for research.  But maybe I'm just projecting.

And because I want to end on positive note:
+Peach-blueberry cobbler is yummy.

Can We Fix It?*


I can't remember being this excited about a Presidential election before. Even the kids caught the enthusiasm and were all excited last night about Barack Obama's victory. Okay, so actually, we sent them to bed before the election was called, but even by then in was a forgone conclusion.

The commentator on ABC noted how sober Obama was last night. But really, could you blame him? I remember getting my first positive pregnancy test. Even though it was totally planned and it was the result we were hoping for, my first reaction was "oh sh*t, what have I gotten myself into?!?" Reality has sunk in and the enormity of the responsibilities and challenges that lie ahead is staring you in the face.

Still, I think if anyone is up to the job, Obama is. Here's to the next four years.

*Yes We Can! (Um, yeah, I think so.)  --Bob the Builder

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election day

I voted today! Did you? I got to the polls about half an hour after they opened, and waited in line about 30-40 minutes. I've never seen lines that long for an election there before. Hopefully the PTA bake sale will make a killing, I have a vested interest in it. :)

On the InaDaWriMo front, I haven't done any more writing since yesterday, unless the 574 words in my IDL script counts. Ah well, I won't count it, even though my script is Awesome and is very necessary for the analysis I'm doing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ready, set, write!

So, my goal for InaDWriMo is 12K words. Basically, I have these two papers for which I've basically done all the work, they just need to be written up. And, inevitably, writing papers means double checking my data and the reduction and all that, so I need to remember what the heck and I did and basically do it all over again just to be sure I'm writing it up correctly. Anyway, my goal is not necessarily to have something submitable by the end of the month, just enough forward momentum that I'll actually be able to publish them in the next calendar year.

All this while finishing up a couple other papers. (I say this to reassure John that I'm still working on our project.) Oh, and job applications. And travelling for Thanksgiving. Okay, I guess my writing goal is a bit ambitious.

So is it cheating that I went to start writing, and discovered that I already had 1619 words of a paper written already, and I'm going to go ahead and count that toward my goal? Because, it turns out that I'm going to have to do quite a bit of revising on that bit of text already.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

InaDWriMo 2008

I am a bad writer. Well, more accurately, I'm a lazy writer. The actual text I write tends to be pretty good, but getting them from the brain to the page is like pulling teeth. My backlog of paper writing is embarrassing.

So, I've just committed to writing 12k words in InaDWriMo 2008, over at Dr. Brazen Hussy's blog.

Because there's nothing like the fear of public humiliation as a motivating force, right?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Depressing statistics

It just so happens that I'm applying for jobs this fall. So seeing this graphic on PhD comics this morning made me feel like crawling back into bed and sobbing.


Friday, October 17, 2008

AWIS & SWE vs. Presidential Candidates

From the AWIS website:
Earlier this summer, AWIS and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) submitted a list of questions to both the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding the candidates' positions on issues which affect women in STEM.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have long since decided who I'm going to vote for, and my choice will soon become clear. Still, I'm curious to see what the candidates have to say in response to the questions, to determine which candidate might be more friendly to science & technology in general, and to women in STEM fields in particular. The answers from the campaigns of McCain and Obama are located here, and my take on the responses are below. (Note: I've abridged the questions for length.)

(1) As President of the United States, how do you plan to address the need for more women in STEM?

Obama: Lists specific measures: requiring minority & female representation on government panels, establishing mentoring programs, enforcement of Title IX, funding for COMPETES and NIH. But what about funding for NSF and NASA, for those of us in physical sciences?

McCain: Discrimination is abhorrent. duh. Mentions an overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but what does that have to do with encouraging girls in math and science?

Obama wins hands down here for actually answering the question, even if I might quibble about some of his ideas.

(2) What is your position on H.R. 6314, the “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” ?

Obama: "Joe Biden and I endorse these efforts." Oh good.

McCain: "I will closely examine any legislation addressing this issue that reaches my desk." Well, I would hope you'd closely examine any piece of legislation.

Obama wins, for actually expressing support.

(3) As President, how would you seek to ensure that Title IX is evenly applied to all sectors of academia, including STEM departments, rather than just athletics?

Obama: "Joe Biden and I will fight to make sure women have equal opportunities and access from pre-kindergarten through graduate school." No specifics beyond that vague promise.

McCain: Actually, it looks like McCain doesn't like Title IX at all. So I guess he thinks discrimination is abhorrent, but not so abhorrent that any laws should actually be put in place to fight it.

Obama wins. I sense a theme.

(4) What is your position on anti-affirmative action initiatives on ballots in Nebraska and Colorado?

Obama: Opposes the initiatives, but notes that affirmative action is "a useful, if limited, tool" and thinks that increasing opportunities for everyone is more effective. Talks about investment in education and supporting college students from low-income backgrounds.

McCain: "I support the initiatives." Thinks that problems would be solved by fixing poorly performing schools, which smacks of NCLB. Also, casting a wide net for recruitment.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on affirmative action, but ultimately share Obama's point of view, that it's a useful but limited tool. I also think that McCain's solutions are too limited. Casting a wide net for recruitment is a good thing, but changing the numbers of women and minorities means addressing more than just the schools that are performing poorly. So I'll have to give this one to Obama.

(5) As President, how do you plan to maintain and/or strengthen existing NSF programs targeted to increasing diversity in STEM education?

Obama: "The ADVANCE program, which aims at institutional transformation, has been hugely successful in creating academic environments that work for everyone." Kudos to Obama for recognizing this! Many programs that seek to help women to succeed help everybody, actually. He also notes that the "broader impact" criteria imposed on NSF grants are good for engaging minority groups.

McCain: "I will support programs that increase the representation of women in science fields in a cost-effective manner without resort to preferences on the basis of sex." That's pretty non-committal. In fact, I would go so far as to read between the lines here and interpret this to mean that McCain does not favor programs that refer to women and minorities at all for fear that they might somehow favor them.

Again, Obama wins.

(6) What do you believe is the responsibility of the federal government with regard to paid family leave?

Obama: He doesn't seem to support efforts by the federal government, but would like to see paid-leave programs instituted by the states. But, he'll provide $1.5 billion to help states implement these programs.

McCain: He's such a maverick, he actually voted for FMLA! Boasts that he "co-sponsored the Family Friendly Workplace Act, which would permit employees to receive paid time off in lieu of overtime wages if they so choose." Which doesn't sound like much of a maternity/paternity leave plan to me. He's in favor of flexible workplace policies including telecommuting.

This is actually a bit of a draw. Obama makes no commitment at the federal level, except for helping fund state initiatives. McCain favors flexible work options, which do help working parents. Neither of them addresses the issue that family leave policies in the US are pathetic compared to most industrialized nations.

(7) To date, appropriations for the America COMPETES programs have not been consistent with the levels authorized by this bill. As President, how will you seek to ensure that this law is followed and that these funding levels are realized?

Obama: "I co-sponsored the America COMPETES Act and added several amendments that help to improve the diversity of our STEM workforce." Obama wins big points here. Notes that's he's strongly committed to increasing funding levels at NSF, DoE, NIST, and NIH. (But you left out NASA!)

McCain: "I will fully fund the America COMPETES Act." Yay.

I give Obama the win here, for co-sponsoring COMPETES, and noting that diversity is a part of it.

As if there were any doubt, I am an Obama supporter. His support of science and diversity in science only bolsters my opinion of him. While I like that he expresses support for federal funding agencies, I'm a bit befuddled that he specifically brings up NIH in addition to NSF and NIST, but not NASA, for instance. I mean, yes, there are lots of women in biological sciences, and they should be fully supported and not have to face discrimination. (And yes, they still do, even as PhDs in bio-sciences reach or even surpass gender parity.) However, not all women scientists are biologists. In fact, some of us women scientists (and engineers) are supported by agencies like NASA, which is conspicuous by its omission in any of the discussion.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

ICWIP: Day 3

I might as well as stayed in bed for the last morning's plenary sessions. As it was, I was late for the first talk, so I'd already missed most of it. The second speaker had poor speaking skills in any language. She rambled, she went off on tangents, and she went far over time. Her highly-accented English only added to the problem.

The rest of the morning was spent discussing and voting on the resolutions of the Working Group on Women in Physics, which are to be presented at the IUPAP general assembly this week. Really, most of them are pretty straightforward. The bulk of the commentary was based on the fact that so many different nations of different sizes and wealth were represented, and this meant that the needs of one group were not necessarily representative of the whole. For example, in the discussion about the global survey (resolution #5), the question of how to define a physicist was brought up. Do you include physics teachers in the definition of physicist? Now for some nations, it makes more sense to only include those with post-graduate degrees. However, in some nations, those teachers might be the highest educated physicists in those countries. In the end, the resolutions were passed unanimously: the resolutions really are pretty straightforward.

I commented on the feedback for conference organizers that childcare needs were poorly dealt with for this particular conference. However, it wasn't until after the conclusion of the meeting while I was talking with people, that it occurred to me that conference childcare was hardly addressed at all. Now I wish I had brought it up. After all, so many of us women physicists are affected by childcare issues. Could the Working Group have made a resolution regarding providing conference childcare at IUPAP meetings, for example? Or is that reaching too far? After all, the question of who would pay for the childcare then becomes an issue. For my own perspective, I felt like I had the responsibility to take care of my childcare needs on my own, but then again, I've become used that perspective. How many women were prevented from coming because of childcare needs? Well, they didn't come to have their voices heard, so perhaps we'll never know.

ICWIP: Day 2.5

Thursday night was the conference banquet. Interestingly, the food was entirely Western cuisine, but the entertainment was traditional Korean dances. I was pleased that there were male dancers as well as female dancers. All too often, only female dancers are featured, so perhaps it was only appropriate that they would have mixed-gender dances for a women-in-physics conference.

There were a number of dignitaries who spoke at the beginning of the meal, including the deputy mayor of Seoul and the chair of the Korean Physical Society and whatnot. But then, it seemed to transition over to some kind of open-mike session, where anyone who felt like they had something heartwarming to say, got up and did so. This went on for almost the entire meal.

Now, the best parts of any conference are the interactions that take place outside the planned sessions, and this conference was no exception. After the dinner, several of us Americans recruited a few locals to take us to enjoy the nightlife in Seoul. By the end, I had swapped some important career advice with some of them. My personal take-home message from this meeting is to stop underestimating myself. For myself and many other women in science, the biggest obstacle is simply ourselves and the fear that we might be revealed as imposters despite our obvious successes. Seeing so many successful women physicists from around the globe and hearing their stories was certainly very empowering.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

ICWIP: Day 2

The plenary talks this morning included one about physics education at a women's college in India, and an astronomy talk on supermassive black holes (yay, astornomy!). While I think that it is pretty cool to hear about the cutting-edge research that women in physics are doing, I feel like too much of the time at this conference has been spent on the plenary scientific talks, and not enough about women in physics around the world. And if we were meant to network more informally during breaks, that doesn't really seem to be working either, since they give us so little time for coffee breaks, lunch, and poster sessions. Today, they grouped us at lunch by field of study, so I got to sit with fellow astronomers from other countries, so that part did help.

The bulk of the work of the meeting seems to be taking place within the four themed workshops: Attracting Girls to Physics, Fund-raising, WIP Working Groups, and Site Visits & Improving the Climate for Women. I've been attending workshops for that last theme.

I was particularly interested in the presentation about the Juno project in the UK presented in the Site Visits workshop today. The program sounds much like the Pasadena Recommendations formulated by the CSWA. However, they've gone even further with it, having two levels of commitment: Juno supporter, which is similar to endorsement of the Pasadena Recommendations; and Juno champion, where the institution demonstrates that they have actually followed through on best practices. Now, the major difference between the UK and the US is that the UK actually has legislation mandating that insitutions demonstrate that they are practicing gender equity, so they have strong motivation to become Juno supporters and champions. In the US, there is no such high level mandate. Astronomy departments can choose to endorse the Pasadena Recommendations out of the goodness of their hearts.

Some other thoughts that are percolating in my head are with regard to work-family juggling. A common thread, especially among East and South Asians, is that women are pressured not to pursue science or perhaps rather, they are pressured to focus on family rather than career. However, an interesting result from a survey done in South Africa shows that women do not point to child care as an obstacle to pursuing careers in physics: rather it is the hostility of the environment to women in general. Then again, they listed flexibility of work arrangements as being important for maintaining careers in physics, so perhaps that very flexibility obviated the need for making external childcare arrangements.

Another theme is sharing information with each other, consolidating resources on a webpage so that people in smaller countries aren't scrambling to find the help they need. So the suggestion was made to create a wiki: sounds like a great idea to me!

My husband, who has been watching the kids for me during the meeting, noted that given that this is a conference on women in physics, there is a remarkable lack of childcare resources provided either by the conference organizers or the hotel. I have to say he has a good point. Then again, since so many of us are coming from so far away, perhaps most of us didn't even consider bringing our children along with us. Except for crazies like me. :)

Overall, though, this meeting has been quite interesting and a great opportunity to meet people both from the US and other countries who share the common interest of promoting women in physics and astronomy. I'm quite glad I came: I only wish I had business cards to hand out.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ICWIP: Day 1 - PM

Whew! That was quite a day.

I had a meeting at 8am, and my last session ended at 9:30pm. We had all of half an hour coffee break in the morning, a 1 hr lunch, a measly 1 hr for poster session, 2 hrs for dinner. The rest of the time was filled with sessions. Yes, it was all very interesting, but also tiring.

I wished we had more time for the poster session, since the posters all looked very interesting, I had barely had time to make one pass around the room. Part of the point of this meeting is networking, and I've barely had the chance to meet all of the US delegation, much less people from other countries!

The workshop on site visits this afternoon was interesting. Successful implementations from the UK and the USA were discussed, and it seemed like a no brainer to recommend that countries try to carry out site visits modeled after the Institute of Physics (IoP, UK) and the American Physical Society (APS, USA) programs. Now, the thing that a site visit does is identify areas for improvement in gender/minority equity to the hosting department, so for that reason the results ought to remain confidential: after all, you have to get an honest assessment of the place before you can make improvements. That's distinct from an accreditation program that might be able to rank the female- (or other underrepresented minority group) friendliness of the department. Granted, I think an accreditation program would be very useful to people applying for grad schools or academic jobs, but I'm not sure that's within the scope of the workshop recommendations.

The other workshop I went to was on negotiation skills. Most of what was talked about could be covered in Women Don't Ask by Babcock and Leschever and this work on implicit bias. There was an interesting discussion, but quite frankly, a lot of us were pretty tired and low energy. I can't use jetlag as an excuse, though. Afterwards, a fellow US delegate recommended upcoming workshops hosted by the APS as perhaps a better venue to learn negotiations skills. Hopefully, posting this remind me to apply when I return to the States. :)

Time for bed now: I have another 8am meeting tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

ICWIP: Day 1 - plenary talks

The format of the conference consists of several plenary talks, as well as several parallel workshops. One of the workshops is simply personal professional development, intended to benefit workshop participants. The other four workshop are really working groups that will meet and make conclusions and recommendations about assigned topics: attracting girls to physics, site visits and improving the climate for women, successful proposals and project leadership, and organizing WIP working groups. The US delegation met before the beginning of today's sessions to figure out which sessions to attend: I'll be going to site visits.

The first thing on the program is "Opening Ceremonies," but our delegation did not actually get up and march or dance or anything. Rather, it might have been better named "Introductory Remarks," because several VIPs got up and make short speeches to welcome and open the meeting. Rather than list all the speakers, I want to comment particularly on just a few:
  • The chair of the LOC, Prof. Youngah Park, used to be a professor of physics, but successfully ran for office
    as a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. So she can now influence public policy with regard to women in science, rather than simply agitating as an academic. How inspiring!
  • Doyoon Byun, Ministry of the Ministry of Gender Equality in South Korea, mentioned that 5% of Korean GNP will go to R&D: I wonder how that compares to the US?
  • Elisabeth Giacobina, Director of Research of CNRS in France, emphasized the need for childcare, choosing between career and family.

The four plenary talks from the morning were scientific talks by women physics from different countries on different topics. The talks were all very good and extremely interesting, but rather than discuss their science here, I'll focus on their personal stories:
  • Prof. Young Kee Kim from Fermilab & U of Chicago: fifth of five girls in her family, with one brother. She credited her parents and teachers for encouraging her studies and treating boys and girls equally.
  • Michèle Leduc from Ecole Normale Supérieure, CNRS: went to Ecole Normale Supérieure back when it was divided into girls and boys schools, and argued that more girls went into science before it became integrated. Credited her feminist mother for saying that girls should have their own careers.
  • Minka Ritsch-Marte from Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria
  • Maki Kawai from Univ. of Tokyo, Kashiwa, Japan: her mother was a physicist, so didn't see anything unusual about pursuing science. Married and had 1st child as grad student, 2nd child as postdoc, and lived apart from her husband for several years. Noted that being a human being and scientist were not necessarily compatible.

ICWIP: Seoul-searching

(You knew I had to make at least one Seoul pun, right?)

Last week, I gave talks at three universities here in Seoul: Sejong, Seoul National University (SNU), and Yonsei.  The basic schedule has been the same: arrive, get oriented, give talk, go out to dinner. There have been varying amounts of pre- and post-talk chatting with people, depending on whether or not I arrived in enough time, and whether or not the custom was to give students time to chat with the speaker.

I had a particularly interesting conversation at SNU, where my host was a woman. We poked some fun at the stereotype that all Korean parents want their kids to become medical doctors or lawyers: apparently the stereotype holds both in South Korea and the United States! Anyway, she thought that this attitude made careers in pure science unpopular in South Korea: people are more interested in practical careers, devoting more interest and resources to technology and engineering than esoteric pursuits like astronomy. It's funny, because even though professors are very highly respected in South Korea, they don't necessarily get paid much. On the other hand, lucrative professions (i.e. lawyering) aren't as well respected, but everyone wants their kids to pursue them anyway. It seems you can have either wealth or esteem, but not both at once.

My impression is that at least in astronomy, women faculty in Korea aren't necessarily doing a whole lot worse than their US counterparts. I didn't get the sense that the departments I visited had any lower representation of women faculty than the US. Then again, it's a pretty small sample size: I only saw the three departments, and each has less than 10 professors. Then again, perhaps if the field was more competitive, it might be more of an issue. Certainly there were plenty of female students in all the departments I visited. Then again, most of the students seemed to be undergrads.

I also had an interesting conversation with my mother's best friend from college, who is a retired professor herself. She noted that South Korea's population is aging rapidly, and complained that people these days just weren't interested in having babies. I noted that perhaps women would be more willing to have babies if Korean society weren't so insistent on traditional gender roles. She told me that it sounded like the sort of problem which needs a lot of social activism, so even though she worries about these kinds of issues, she's too busy to spend time doing anything about it. And really, who does? When you're busy with your day-to-day work, keeping up your house, taking care of the kids, and whatever else life chooses to throw your way, it's that much more effort to fight against cultural attitudes, which is a lot like trying to fight smoke with a sword. However, someone needs to fight that battle, and perhaps the first battle is to figure out what a better weapon might be.

It's been extremely interesting comparing and contrasting cultural attitudes in Korea versus the US, and I look forward to hearing about other countries at the ICWIP meeting this week, too.

ICWIP: Day 0

I checked in to the hotel and registered for the ICWIP today. At the reception, I met up with several members of the US delegation, many of whom had arrived just within the hour. I was impressed that they were still standing.

We decided to go out for dinner together to start to get to know each other. Now, despite having been in here in South Korea for a week and a half now, I hadn't been to this part of Seoul before and my Korean is merely passable, not great. Anyway, we ended up at a barbecue place, which wasn't so good for the vegetarians, but they made do with bibimbap. I kept not quite understanding the waitress, and finally she got fed up and demanded why the heck I had such trouble understanding, and I apologized and explained that I'm really from the US so my Korean isn't that great, and that seemed to smooth things over.

So that's my story about international relations for tonight.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back again

Well, my regular blog at is experiencing technical difficulties, again, which will be unresolvable until Monday at the earliest. Something about being in a foreign country makes solving technical difficulties stateside difficult.

Anyway! I'm here in Seoul, South Korea to attend the 3rd International Conference on Women in Physics which I'm totally psyched about! I had planned to blog about it all along, which is why I'm all grumpy about my blog server being down, but glad I have this here backup blog instead.

Stay tuned, more will follow. If I have the time, perhaps I'll even blog some about the week and a half I've already spent here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Back from the dead is back online! w00t!

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Good thing I never got around to deleting this blog, because it may just come in handy right now.

Due to catastrophic server failure, is temporarily down. I'm not clear about how to get the word out, and not quite web-savvy enough to figure out how to redirect that url to here until things are back to normal.

Anyway, here's hoping the interruption will be brief.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Changing with the Times

I've changed a lot over the years. Once in a while it will hit me: I've become a grown-up with a job and kids and mortgage payments, and not a carefree teenager anymore, although from the inside I don't feel like I've changed much at all in the past 15 years. Unsurprisingly, many of the biggest changes are correlated with major steps on the academic ladder: high school to college, college to grad school, grad school to postdoc.

A lot of the changes I've gone through in the past relate to scientific knowledge and sophistication. To illustrate what I mean, I'll relate it to the way graduate students give talks:
  • 1st and 2nd year students give too much background information because that's all they know.
  • 3rd year students have learned that they can skip some background information because everybody knows that stuff.
  • 4th years skip too much background because they assume that if they know something, everyone must know it too.
  • The 5th year and beyond is all about recalibrating.

Hopefully by the time a student finishes, they've adequately calibrated how much background to give, but don't count on it.

One of the members of my thesis committee once gave me the following advice: When you start out, you have an idea, and you hold onto it because you're afraid you'll never have another good idea again. By the time you're where I am, you have all these ideas, and you start giving them away because you have no time to work on them yourself. That's when you know you're ready to be a professor.

Another friend of mine created a whole theory about it, called bogosity theory. Bogons, which are packets of esoteric information, are emitted by professors. Students absorb these bogons. Gradually, they absorb more and more of them and become grad students. Eventually, their absorption rate slows, and they begin emitting bogons as well. Finally, they become full bogon emitters, or professors, in their own rights.

If that's really all it's about, the the spontaneous generation of ideas, then I feel like I'm totally ready to be a professor. I could really use a small army of minions grad students. However, it isn't just about having good ideas. It's as much about politics and networking and self-promotion and schmoozing as it is about writing papers and winning grants. My postdoc years have been a lot about becoming savvy about self-promotion and trying to get over being an introvert.

This is where I see being a woman becomes a real disadvantage. At earlier stages, it's easier to argue that it's all about the quality of research. But when it comes time to apply for faculty positions and tenure and all that, it's more about the impact of your research. This is where the networking comes in: you gotta give talks, go to conferences, talk important people up, promote your ideas, yadda yadda. You need to find people who will promote your ideas for you as well: advisors and mentors. Then social conditioning comes into play. It's hard to break into the old boys' network. Heck, it can be hard to speak up when you're talking informally in a group where you're the only woman. It's hard to get over the social conditioning that says you should be quiet and meek, and someday Prince Charming will notice that elegant but little-cited paper of yours and swoop in with a job offer on a silver platter.

I am hoping, really really hoping, that in the job cycle next year or the year after, I will land a tenure-track job. If I can't line up a tenure-track position after this postdoc, my career as an astronomer will pretty much be washed up. I know that even after that, I won't be able to rest on my laurels until I get tenure, but I'd rather not think that far ahead just now. It seems difficult enough just to clear the next hurdle.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008