Setting up at the lab again

I’ve been notified by my school that everyone will be returning in August. Which is good for me because we’ve been on a max-two people in the lab at a given moment. My students have been good at taking shifts, taking care of each other’s animals and cells, and staying relatively productive through all of this. I’m proud of them. And considering that I’ve been out most of the time, I’m doubly proud of them. I’m happy with this bunch because the productive and good students have positively influenced the newest batch. They have good work hours, good receptivity to outside input, and seem generally well motivated. It’s interesting how the group mentalities work with a bad student bringing everyone down, but how a couple good ones really perking up the whole joint.

I’m also happy that we will be returning because I am teaching a very group-project and lab-heavy based class. And I had no freaking clue how to do this over Teams. But now I don’t have to think about it. I just get to continue with the lesson plan I started a couple months ago. I miss the energy on campus at the start of a new semester and also the bustle of my lab. I’m shopping around for in-office childcare options like cribs and play areas. I also found (what I hope is a joke setup) a way to store a baby in a desk drawer. One thing I normally do while working is play music. I don’t think I’ll be doing that during sleep time. And I have become accustomed to napping while the little one sleeps. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do as much of that come August.

Stars

Before I went into the biomedical field for my PhD I was a physicist at a national laboratory doing space-based research. I got into physics in the first place because I loved space. In my home country there wasn’t that much light pollution; so I could stare at the stars and imagine what it’s like out there. And also realize how little each person is. I would read up on everything space related I could get my hands on. And being a part of projects that touched the edge of our planet made me feel great.

My youth also sparked a general interest in nearly everything scientific. From the way-outside-of-my-field to the publications that my academic and industry competitors put out. And in a lot of my service I focus on getting people interested in science. Right now, people seem to be most interested in one aspect of science: microbiology. But there’s so much more. And if we can get people interested in science and listening to people with the knowledge, maybe our great world can get even greater. I love the idea of looking up to scientists the way I look up in to the sky: with admiration and a realization of what’s important in life. And if scientists were treated with the respect of the people on ‘insert celebrity gawking show here’, then the world be better. I’m convinced of it. And it’s sad when things like my adopted country launching astronauts into space is barely passed over in the news. Everyone I talked to about this leading up to the launch had no clue that we were about to do something amazing. I know people don’t care about this stuff anymore, but people need to.

Tomorrow, Crew Dragon Demo-2 gets another shot at an absolutely incredible feat. And if the news doesn’t care to cover it, then I’m yelling to anyone that will listen.

I meant to post this weeks ago but forgot to hit Publish…

I’ve always been good at keeping myself busy. In my personal life I’ve always had more things to do than time to do it. Since my progeny started to have some regularity to sleep, I started to have a little bit of time to do other things. And since we haven’t been able to get out much between the parental leave and stay-at-home orders I have become even better at keeping myself occupied on the personal front. A large portion of this is TV, books, and podcasts below that I’ve partook in the past few months.

Podcasts that have preserved my sanity:

No Such Thing as a Fish

Snap Judgment

Infinite Monkey Cage

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

99% Invisible

 

Books:

Feathers

Disappearing Sppon

Your Inner Fish

Unthinkable

Drug Hunters

 

TV that has preserved my sanity:

Devs

The Sinner

Bob’s Burgers

Killing Eve

 

I honestly haven’t had as much to write about because I’m not doing as many committee meetings or lab work since we’ve been having to stagger the people in the lab and we’re heavy on lab and not computational work right now (we go through cycles)

Other than that, the two summer conferences I usually attend have been canceled. I’m a co-chair for one so that’s a lot of work gone to waste. But we’re having it remotely. I had been doing some travel for work before all these restrictions hit, which I welcomed because I was cooped up so much. I’ve been putting together some decent stories for the next round of grant deadlines and they are corresponding well with students graduating. So hopefully I can bring in some fresh minds with semi-fresh grant topics to keep myself excited. My plan is to start anew and keep my the amount of students down. Now that I’m not trying to hit tenure with a wicked amount of students and papers I can focus in a little more on some high-risk ideas. So long as we’re allowed to step back into the lab.

I hope everyone is listening to the proper authorities and staying sane!

Multiple choice

I’ve resumed a lot of committee duties and one thing I’ve been pushing for the last couple years is more TAs (we have the money) and fewer multiple-choice questions on tests. The argument is always that if we had free form answer there aren’t enough people to grade for the larger early career classes. Hence the need for more TAs. They might be correct because the most I’ve had in a class is ~80 with one TA. I haven’t had any of the 100+. That being said (and typed), I always have free form answer because I feel that best exams test the student’s knowledge. Multiple choice (especially when things are written intentionally to trick the students, like swapping a letter or using quadruple negatives in a sentence) tests will test what a student doesn’t know. I hated them as a student (bear in mind that I did very well on them), and I hate them as a professor. I see it as lazy. I brought this up, and was met with a lot of contention and excuses. And I understand all the points, but part of our job is education in the classroom. We all have busy personal and lab lives that we have to juggle with these teaching loads, but we shouldn’t be just caring about a grade number and trying to trick students into getting questions wrong. We should teach them well, test them for what they know, and assign scores accordingly. I’m all for trick questions, but I’m also for partial credit. If someone set the boundary conditions properly, but I inserted a trick unit mix-up and they screwed up they deserve a lot of credit. A multiple-choice test (unless broken down properly) would give them zero.

One person advocated for a problem broken down into multiple parts, then each part have a multiple-choice questions associated. So, outlining the problem gets a question, BCs get a question, math gets a question, solving then discussion both get questions. Then if they got the question wrong we reevaluate for partial credit. This kind of works, but still doesn’t fully test the students’ knowledge. In addition, this doesn’t work for classes that are, say, more biology-focused. There’s not as much critical thinking in these types of classes (which I do have to teach). In these, I still test them long-form, and I can really tell if a student understands something or not.

I know I’ve made a few enemies and will continue to make more with this campaigning. But I really do think multiple-choice tests are lazy. I will always make time for the students. The same goes for Chalkboard, which I’m forced to use, and which I only use to disseminate documents to my students. Everyone is busy, but students ultimately come first. I would feel bad failing a student for knowing a topic, but unable to decipher the convoluted ways I have to phrase questions to trick them. It’s lazy tests only what students don’t know, and I’m not changing my mind about this.

Babybatical

The holiday season has been over for a good bit of time, and I feel like I’ve finally recovered. I had to host a few people that made pilgrimage to see my little one, and some were great guests and some got in the way. Overall, it was a good holiday season with a decent amount of relaxation. We just took down the decorations (a pseudo-Queen’s Chistmas?). I have no teaching duties again this semester, so the last semester and this one I’ve termed as my babybatical. My SO has been able to shoulder some load so I can at least stay reasonably involved in my research from both an external and internal standpoint. I didn’t want to show my face too soon or I thought people would think that I’m a bad parent, but if I didn’t show up at all I felt like people would think I’m a bad researcher. I know that’s totally messed up, but I sometimes buckle under pressure that I most definitely put on myself. So I did some outside appearances, and have been keeping on my lab relatively well. I do feel grimy for thinking this way though.

I know my students’ hours have dropped off during the babybatical, but I’m still holding them responsible for a certain amount of progress. I suppose that my constant bothering them has allowed them to focus. Though sometimes they’re focusing in the wrong direction and I notice that the course correction is more difficult when I’m not on them more. It has been nice to not have teaching duties, but given the complete lack of sleep and constant attention to the baby, though rewarding so far, it’s incredibly tiresome. I don’t think I want to go through this again; I’ll gladly teach.

With my sole work focus being research, during moments of lucidness I have been able to start on a couple new grant ideas. I love my time with industry, and it’s a major part of what I’m doing, but my projects are at a point where it’s a little more on the basic research side of things rather than applied. I also want to wean off of industry because the heavy leaning worked well when establishing my lab and while every company out there was pouring money into new technology. There’s been less technology investment from talking to my industry funding sources so it is coming at an ‘ideal’ time. And this babybatical has given me the chance to reorganize.

Thanksgiving and falling behind…and stuff

I hope everyone out there had a decent Thanksgiving! Visiting family is always something I feel an obligation about. Having a little one automatically allows me to have an excuse not to travel, and it was great. So I invited a couple friends and any homesick students over for dinner and games. A few students took me up on it (never ones to turn down free food) and I kicked their butts in Mario Kart, and they kicked my butt in Settlers. Then we hung out in the freezing cold with a good fire going. I intentionally don’t ask about my students’ personal lives much, so it was interesting to actually hear about it. It was nice to see them for longer than 30 minutes a week since I’ve been away so much, and also nice to not be talking shop the whole time.

I still felt a little guilty about not going to visit family, but to avoid the constant criticism from my family it’s worth it. I do miss seeing nephews and nieces, but they know I’m around if they ever want to visit. I’m visiting an industry partner a short skip away from them so I might stop through for a quick visit next week. On that note…

The industry partners are less understanding that I’m on leave. They still have pretty aggressive goals, and I remember part of what I hate about corporate America. Everyone says they care about something (in this case, paternal care), but there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action. It’s not necessarily hypocritical, but it’s very fake. And it got me remembering how corporate America can be so fake with regard to employee welfare, the environment, work-life balance, among other things. Profit is the only thing that matters to them under the guise of caring about other things, and while I’m on leave I’m afraid they won’t be so accommodating. So I’ve brought in another senior student to help with the work. I feel really shitty because it’s not like this will go into her dissertation, but I need the help for the next few months. She understands and has said she’s grateful for the opportunity, but I just don’t like distracting her at this point in her program. But I need to keep this afloat for the next year so I don’t have a choice. Every time I get offered to go back to industry to run a lab, I get tempted because of the massive pay bump, but luckily I remember all the shit and politely turn them down.

The little one is doing very well. The amount of time needed is daunting. I can’t imagine with my old job pressures of being able to do this, and I have a newfound respect for some of the people having kids while in my previous high-pressure atmosphere.

Idols

In nearly every profession there are superstars. And with stardom comes worship. This happened in industry where people would practically worship upper-management. Like some brainwashed cult members. In academia, the superstars PIs get the red carpet treatment and people lining up to see them. I could just never understand this. I never understood celebrity culture: getting all amped and wanting pictures with this person or that person. Correspondingly, when people would recognize me, I would shy away. I just don’t like the idea of worshipping people. I understand having respect for and wanting to meet certain people, but the worship I’m talking about reminds me a lot of cults. I have plenty of respect for leaders in the field (as researchers), or certain politicians or philanthropists, but whenever I’ve met one I shack hands, have a good talk then walk away. I’m not trying to be cool, I just don’t care that much.

I have nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. One of my students wants to submit for a specific conference because an important person in that field will be there, and he wants to go to “get his picture with him”. Not to network or anything, just get a picture and say they met them once. It’s a good conference, so obviously I’m not denying them if they can get a travel grant, but to me this is crazy. In industry, I would see coworkers try to catch upper management during coffee breaks to just see them. This is all crazy to me. I’ll never understand.