The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time

For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again.  (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here.  Here are our results.)  As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses.  The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D.  A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.”  The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details.  Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human.  They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on.  Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction).

So what’s going on?  These faculty members are presumably the successful ones, so an interpretation of their advice is that they’re (1) expressing regret they didn’t live better when they were younger, or (2) telling us the secret of their success.  The aforementioned study on the working habits of scientists might make us doubt the latter interpretation.  So if you’re looking for yet another reason to feel guilty for not working all the time, well, here you go.  But I think this oversimplifies the situation.  First, one’s optimal work-life balance is not static over time — one’s needs as a graduate student are different from those as a young professional which are different from a mid-career person.  So what might seem workaholic now maybe will be more comfortable in 15 years, or vice versa.  Second, work-life balance has a great deal of person-to-person heterogeneity.  A lifestyle that is balanced for one person may be too overwhelming for another, and too freewheeling for a third.  The effects of this balance on one’s actual productivity are also not as simple as we might think.  I know some folks who seem to work almost all the time, and yet they don’t seem to accomplish a whole lot.  On the other hand, I know someone who has more fun than almost everyone I know, and yet he’s reached a level of professional success most of us can only dream of.  (I’m still talking about scientists, by the way!)

Perhaps the takeaway, then, is not only to take seriously the need for balance, but to consider seriously one’s very individualized needs for it, rather than letting it be determined by cultural or social norms.  The work-life balance you strike should be the result of your deliberate choice, and not the inevitable consequence of external pressures or other choices you make.  If faculty wisdom is to be believed, then it sounds like you won’t regret it.

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.

Research Tools: Storage, Physical Media Be Gone

Cloud Storage
Cloud Storage

For graduate students, especially those in the sciences who collect a large quantity of data, having a reliable backup source is very important. Furthermore, having access to the data from multiple places makes it easier to complete some tasks. As we conduct our research, apply our hypothesis, and run simulations, we tend to collect this data and may want to keep it for analysis later.

We have gone through multiple types of storage media (Floppy Disks, CDs/DVDs, USB Drives) in the last 2 decades. With each and every one of them there have been advantages and disadvantages. We also had to carry around the storage media and there was always a possibility of the data being corrupted and in some cases unrecoverable. In this post I want to go through 2 cloud storage options a graduate student could encounter and my thoughts on their use. I have found that some students don’t know how cloud storage can benefit them and once they start using it they find it an essential part of their workflow.

Standalone: Dropbox (2 GB free; 500MB per student referral; max 16 GB; paid options)

Dropbox has been a personal favorite of mine for the last 3 or so years. Dropbox is an easy to use cloud storage solution. You setup an account on their website, install their application on whichever platform you use and then you can drop files in the Dropbox Folder and it will sync. Syncing here means that all the places you have installed Dropbox will update their files as you save changes to them. So if you have Dropbox installed on 2 computers, your lab computer and your laptop, and you make and save a change on a file on your laptop, in a few seconds the change will be reflected on your lab computer.

You can also share your dropbox with your lab-mates, advisor, friends and family. This is great when collaborating on a project. Warning: collaborating on a single file together on Dropbox without managing who has access to it and when, can turn tragic: For example, if two people make changes on the the same old version of the same file, save it on Dropbox a few seconds apart, without the second person first opening the version person one has saved then all of person one’s work may be overridden.  Dropbox does have basic version control but one should always be careful with working on a single file with multiple people [link]. Dropbox has been expanding its offering with integration with services from other companies, for example, with Dropbox you can host a simple website with site44 [link]

Integrated Suites: Given the major challenge I pointed out with Dropbox, lets look at some integrated solutions. Integrated in the sense that they provide not just cloud storage but built in tools for editing and collaboration.The big one is Google Docs

Google Docs/Drive (5 GB Free, number of paid options)

Google Docs started as a document creation tool that is completely online. Through time it has evolved into an online storage, creation and collaboration tool. With Google Docs you can create documents, share them with others as well as collaborate on document creation itself too. You can create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms etc. You can also import documents you have created elsewhere into the Google format as well as download the documents in a format that you can open in applications on your computer. In April Google relaunched Docs as Google Drive. It now has the same capability as Dropbox, in that you can now sync local documents across computers and share them. Collaboration is the major differentiating feature. Personal tips about the services: When evaluating if the application will be something I use regularly I check if the application has multiple access options. For me having access to my files on a phone, tablet or web is great as I can then open important documents wherever I am. I also store notes that I sometimes create while in transit.

Other Products.  There are numerous other options for cloud storage and/or collaboration. A quick list (not exhaustive):

Research Methodologies in Laboratory Sciences- The Joys of Analytical Instrumentation

Obtaining a graduate degree would be so much easier if the analytical instrumentation would just work…For those of you would don’t have to run various chromatography instruments (ICs, HPLCs, GCs), thermo-cyclers, spectrophotometers, or any of the other numerous finicky pieces of laboratory equipment, I envy you.  You haven’t had to start your day thinking you would be able to run 100+ samples and get another figure for your thesis, only to spend not just a day but a whole week troubleshooting a mysterious problem, eventually determining you’ll have to order a part that will be delivered in three more weeks just to determine the concentration of your chemical of interest.  This of course holds up all the other experiments you had planned to set up.  I welcome you all to the joys of basic wet science research.

When I find myself in these situations I take a deep breath and think of all the reading I’ll be able to get done while I wait.  In my experience these situations usually arise from a few common problems and are a major part of the experimental process.  First, make sure you really read the instrument manual before you attempt to use anything or try to fix it.  Many times an instrument isn’t working because someone else, who had no idea what they were doing, decided to make a “repair.”  This is one reason it is important for senior members of the lab to instruct the new lab members on proper usage.  Secondly, remember to perform routine maintenance, as neglected instruments are like high maintenance boyfriends and girlfriends.  They will not work solely out of spite if ignored for too long.  Instruments work best when used and maintained on a regular basis. Third, always remember that this is part of the “learning” process.  You never really understand how something works until you have taken it apart and put it back together a million times.   Now not only are you an expert on the instrument, but you can also understand and interpret your data better since you know the limitations of the measurement. Your advisor and other graduate students will agree that this is a large part of the experimental process.

Lastly, if all else fails, blame an undergraduate and take a long weekend or a mental health day.  Delays are only to be expected when relying on group used equipment and if you are lucky someone else will have fixed it by the time you get back.  Plus working this hard makes obtaining the data that much sweeter.  So the next time an instrument, computer, or your “favorite” piece of equipment gives you a strange error message remember that you are not alone and that this is all part of the process.

I can just Google it.

Despite having several thoughtful blog entries “in the works,” I thought I’d make my first post about something perhaps slightly amusing and somewhat observational. We live in an age well past the dawn of the internet. Indeed, I would not call it the age of information, but rather, the age of data. Social media, bulk email, Youtube, cell phones, smart phones, Twitter, the blog-o-sphere, and everything else — we are highly connected to media. I was struck recently when a group of undergraduates was somewhat shocked that I knew some basic theorems of mathematics off the top of my head. And while that was surprising to them, they were thoroughly confounded when I identified an arachnid as something other than a spider  — not only that it was possible to identify such things by their physiology, but that one could do so without aids or notes (some were also unaware that such creatures exist at all). Indeed, my observations and conclusions were checked on Wikipedia as soon as they got to a computer.

I don’t know if there are technical definitions of the terms data and information (and whether those definitions vary in whatever fields they find use), but to me, they have sharply different connotations. I believe the superhighway of the Internet, and all of its major repositories of (mostly) text-based media, are not conductors of information, but rather, of data – data of varying types, formats, detail, and reliability. And for that reason, significant research is being done to distill and interpret large sets of data, in myriad formats and structures and scenarios (which is not the topic of this blog post).

What I wanted to discuss is how “looking it up” has become such a pervasive technique for the acquisition of information, and why — with so much data around — it is important to know precisely what this process really means. In the end, I think there is an important distinction between looking up information and hearing it from an authority (in a lecture, discussion, conversation, correspondence, or however else). In person or by some personal medium of communication, knowledge and insight can be expressed and even transferred. The ideas are filtered and interpreted carefully, especially in a dialogue or discussion, and the information is contextualized and is explained with greater depth and breadth than a Google search or a Wikipedia article might provide.

Indeed, I believe various tools like Google, Wikipedia, or Wolfram Alpha (for those of us who are mathematically inclined) have all changed the nature of our interactions (be we students, teachers, or those outside of the university setting) with information and data. Painful anecdotes circulate about students who complain that no sources exist for their term paper because Google can’t find any, or who complain that a math problem cannot be solved because Wolfram Alpha can’t solve it. If only research were so easy!

That misunderstanding, which may be a more subconscious sort of convolution of bad habits and lack of information about better practices, really limits students. And these same misconceptions bleed over into the younger generation in academics and the workforce — and even into older generations as well. Bad habits are hard to break, but surely, they are somewhat easy to adopt. What used to be somewhat novel has become the go-to method for trying to find information, but is it the best first-line for that process? If not, when are alternatives more appropriate?

The reason it is so easy to adopt this model — that all information and knowledge can be obtained by reasonable computer search, and thus does not need to be known or understood beforehand — is that for trivial or logistical information, it has become increasingly valid. Indeed, I am blessed with a relatively uncommon name, and the number one Google search terms going to my website are things like “Kellen Myers Rutgers office hours” or “Kellen TA Math” or the like. Students who need logistical information about my office hours, course policies, etc. can find my website and find all that information there. But if they need help with the course, they should not Google “Kellen Myers calculus homework answers.” I doubt this would be useful, and at the very least, I don’t recommend looking up homework answers online to any students.

Once, in particular, I was sorely disappointed to find students asking (many of them repeatedly) when office hours were. Finally, when one student asked by email for the second time (having forgotten my previous response?), I responded that this information can be found by a Google search or by visiting my website — the student was very displeased, and even accused me of disrespect and dereliction of my duty as a TA for not answering the question directly. This stance, in addition to being somewhat hyperbolic, is an unfortunate passing over of the resources and information at hand. Students can often find a wealth of information about their courses’ logistical information, about their instructors’ availability, library hours, school policies, etc. etc. There is a huge amount of information out there! Here, by the way, is an important note for those who provide this information — doing it correctly, effectively, and clearly is an important part of the administrative side of instruction. Five minutes putting together a clear, concise webpage for a course may save hours of emails, confusion, etc.

But information like times, dates, locations, birth-dates, and so forth, seem to be easily accessible and, if the context is understood, a precise online search would yield this sort of information easily. There is no problem discerning from a search what data are valid and which can be trusted to give the correct, valid, desired piece of information. For example, if I needed to know offhand what year the Magna Carta was issued, without the Internet I could (very cautiously) ballpark it as 1100-1400, but a Google search brings it up immediately (the first hit being Wikipedia, which has the information right there in the first paragraph). But knowing the context helps, as a similar search attempting to find the year Marie Antoinette gave her famous “Let them eat cake.” speech brings up several news stories about Mitt Romney, various complicated historical accounts of how she never actually said such a thing, and much more data (related and unrelated) than I would have liked. More knowledge and context might help me sift through that information, but here Google does seem to fail to deliver precisely the datum I was expecting to find.

In the long run, this issue has an impact on how we teach students to find information, be it informally (that is, day-to-day stuff) or in some formal setting (e.g. term paper). This generation of undergraduates has, after all, never used an actual card catalog. Everything is an electronic search, but knowing how to search effectively and what to expect from various search tools is important, and this might be something students (and scholars, and others) lack. We may not have knowledge of the tools at hand, nor of the results one can obtain when using such tools (or how to use such results responsibly).

Indeed, upper level math courses in particular become a bit tough when planning homework. Is this problem solved online somewhere? Will my students find it through Google? It’s a pretty good argument against posting solutions when often, standard or important exercises would be rendered ineffective by having solutions available prematurely. Perhaps this is another piece of good practice for instructors, in both keeping solution sets off the internet and learning to adapt when such information becomes ubiquitous. It may be challenging, finding ways of still giving effective problem sets without running afoul of these online solutions, but I  would say it is usually possible.

The question becomes more complex when computers can solve problems too. In algebra and calculus, students can make use of Wolfram Alpha to solve problems (now with steps provided explicitly, which makes cheating-detection quite difficult). And this isn’t confined to homework or take-home assignments. Indeed, I have heard of students whose phones have been confiscated during exams, with the Wolfram Alpha App wide open with a solution to an exam question on the display. But is Wolfram Alpha the enemy? Let’s hope not — it’s an enemy we can’t fight! It won’t go away, and surely no one can believe such a service could be blocked, censored, or limited in some way.

Like Google or Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha and any other such site will be there to provide students with access to various data, and how students use that data is something to which we must respond well, but also for which we can prepare. (And here, perhaps, I disagree with Wolfram’s description of its product as a “knowledge engine. I would consider it a data engine, and that usually it could be considered reliable enough to provide information, but not knowledge. To me, knowledge of a calculus problem is the ability to understand the methodology of the solution and solve it without an outside aid of that sort. I realize all three of these terms I have used without definition, and I am not brave enough to venture some postulated set of definitions for the terms despite using them freely.)

But, if students are taught how to effectively utilize searching resources, including things like library catalogs and journal resources, they will have access to a better base of data. If we prepare them to filter and interpret that data, we can mediate the problems created by the influx of data that might overwhelm someone searching on the Web. And if we prepare resources (mainly, websites) that provide important and essential information through search engines effectively, students will find the right information right away, using the resources that they have come to primarily rely on for acquiring data. And for times when this is not the right way to find data, we can help students learn to use other resources — which may, in this generation, be new to them (up until college, Google and Wikipedia may have sufficed entirely). Eventually, we can hope they will not be reliant on these resources for all data, as research, writing, learning, and other experiences should impart knowledge and information. And we ourselves, as faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, or anyone else, can learn to better use these resources. Search engines and other online data/information resources can supplement instruction and research, and are incredible tools for data acquisition, but knowing when and how to use them is crucial — not only to prevent misuse or over-reliance on these resources, but to also make use of them as important and increasingly abundant tools for gathering and refining information.

“Desktop Faculty Development” — the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List

One of the best online resources for graduate students, especially those aspiring to academic careers in research or teaching, has to be the Tomorrow’s Professor (TP) mailing list:

http://www.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Tomprof/index.shtml

Managed by Rick Reis, a professor of engineering at Stanford, the list produces entries twice weekly on a wide variety of topics relevant to graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members, many of which are excerpted from recent journals or books.

I first learned about TP through a colleague who forwarded one of their e-mails regarding teaching. Since then I have been actively reading most of the postings, which I’ve found to be both an outstanding source of advice and a great way to keep abreast of the latest issues in higher education and education research.

Anyone can subscribe to the list to receive the regular e-mails (subscription instructions available on the above URL), although the website contains a full archive of previous posts. There is also a blog that regularly reposts the content:

http://derekbruff.org/blogs/tomprof/