Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On the Year That I Will Never Have Again

I'm ready to give up on 2014. The time is right, after all.

It was a utilitarian year. I did what I had to do. Mentally, it was a difficult year, entrenched in the responsibilities of professorhood. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it's easy.

December 1st marked my two-year anniversary at CMU, so I've now embarked into the Land of Third Year Faculty. The scary thing is that when I talk to more senior faculty about their beginnings, 90% of them say, "You think the second year is hard? Wait until year three. Then the money will really be running out, and you may lose your mind".

But here's the thing: my year three will not be worse. I will not let it. Fundamentally, I am a hopeful person. I fought through year two, I suffered through parts, and I've emerged tired but better equipped and far more determined on the other side. I have a vibrant group of five Ph.D. students, 3 M.S. students and a handful of undergrads that are enthusiastic about their work and looking forward to the years ahead. I'm here to take care of them, but they take care of me, too. They carry me on their backs when I'm feeling overwhelmed. My enterprise has become so much bigger than just me.  

Year Two, in Review

On Research. I started the year with 3 Ph.D. students (2 first years) and not much progress in the lab since I had moved to CMU (starting up can teach patience). I still felt a need to keep my research pursuits close to home. I felt confident, but I didn't feel adventurous. And then, slowly, things started working. My students started bringing me graphs and reports and beautiful productions of their minds that had never before flitted through my own. And this was the evidence I needed to support what I had always known - that the research is about the students, it is their product, it is not really mine.

This acknowledgement freed me. It's allowed me to entertain exotic ideas, ones not grounded in the comfort of my past efforts. When I was assigned two Ph.D. students this fall, I gave them projects that are exciting and novel and all of those things that make people say wut?! I'm going to sit in the passenger seat while these students drive to the Grand Canyon and to the glaciers of northern Montana. I've never been there before, but I know how to use a map. I can't wait.

On Grants. In my first two years at CMU, I submitted ten external grant proposals (7 declined, 3 pending), four internal proposals (3 awarded, 1 declined), and seven letters of intent that were not invited for full submissions. I suffered through these submissions. They were painful. They felt like a snarled and jagged rite of  passage that I am still trying to forget. Helping me forget was a grant that I was awarded without having applied for it (!!) from the Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology (CNAST). I got the news by email one Saturday night at 7:30 when I was sitting at the dining room table eating cereal for dinner. Almost fell out of my chair. CNAST is the hero of my year and returned to me a piece of the sanity I had lost several months prior.

The external funding situation will improve. It has to. My proposals are scored well, they just haven't hit yet. "Patience obtains all things" is the quote that has been sitting at the top of my office whiteboard since June.

On Teaching. A year ago, I had not taught a class by myself. I didn't know how this would go, and I was afraid of it. Once I started, I was surprised at how much time it took, even when I limited prep time to 3 hours per class. And in thinking about the time it was taking away from proposal writing, the next stage was one of resentment. How was I supposed to be successful if I didn't have ALL OF THE HOURS to write proposals?

Then came the fall and yet another new class that neither I nor anyone else had taught before, and I almost died from the stress of not planning the course until the week before the semester started. Why? Because I wrote proposals all summer. But I got through it, and it all went exceedingly well. With the success of that elective course, and the pleasant ongoing interactions I was having with the students I had taught in the spring, I entered a new and what I hope to be more permanent phase: appreciation.

Fear - resentment - appreciation

I've come to realize (and accept) that I don't have control over many aspects of my job as a professor. I can submit proposals - but it's not up to me as to whether or not they'll be funded. I can write papers and shoot for the moon - but peer review is subjective and sometimes downright strange, and outcomes are often not as we had imagined they would be. So what would that leave me to control?* I've realized, with delight, that I control my teaching. All students, no matter where they are on the spectrum of Excellence, can benefit from good instruction. And that is something I can give. Now, finally, gladly.

On All of the Rest. I wish that research, grant writing, and teaching is all there is to consider. I've finished some work from my postdoc. I've molded and shaped and have been trying to write up research in my current lab, in some cases from students that have moved on - and the onus is on me. I've been working hard to understand how Carnegie Mellon works, how the money works, how the machine ticks (or who ticks the machine). I've been sitting on committees and going to meetings that are so boring they make me want to staple my eyelids closed. The fact that I've resisted is further evidence of my potential.

If you've made it through this post, I think you'd agree with me that I've made progress. In large part because I've tried to be honest about the challenges I've encountered and to learn from them. We can only ask so much of ourselves, and there are enough critics in our lives! And on that note, I can say with confidence: in 2014, I did enough.

Happy new year to you from Pittsburgh!

*The need for the typical Type A Professor to control is a topic for another discussion...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I Believe You're Undermining Your Own Writing

I believe that I was reading a scientific document last week that contained several instances of sentences that went something like:
We believe that our novel approach enables decreased rates of infection. 
I believe that my training in Awesomeness uniquely qualifies me to carry out the proposed work.
I believe that these sentences contain a word that significantly weakens the writer's message. I believe that I have two major objections:

1. The words "I believe" or "we believe" are redundant. It is assumed that the writer believes what he or she is writing.

2. Scientific writing is not the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Catholics have to announce that they believe in the Holy Spirit in large part because there is limited evidence that the Holy Spirit exists in our physical world. In contrast, I sure as heck hope that there is very real evidence for the claims within your scientific document. E.g., if you believe that your novel approach enables decreased rates of infection, there had better be some evidence of reduced infection in your proposal/manuscript/letter to your grandmother. And if so, you don't need to qualify your sentence with the word believe. There is nothing supernatural about dead bacteria.

Our words are weakened by the word believe. You can get rid of it, cross it out, liberally employing the delete key (or backspace for my PC-minded friends). While we're at it, let's get rid of I think as well - which, frankly, is far more egregious than I believe.

I believe in gravity and entropy and other foundations of science. I believe in cats and dogs and the stinkbugs that invariably die in my bathroom. I believe that caffeine can be extracted from coffee, and I believe that Tuesday will follow Monday, everlasting.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Wasn't Supposed to be a Scientist

I seem to be missing a popular piece of the Scientist's Story. I've never written a personal essay describing my budding childhood passion for All Things Science. I have no recollections of conducting experiments on grass clippings or stray beetles. I am not like Bob Langer, who often describes a critical time in his childhood when he received a chemistry set capable of basement explosions.  An ordinary Sunday in the Langer household, and boom! - one of the greatest scientists of the modern time was synthesized. Nothing so profound ever went down in my parent's house.

I had undefined beginnings, and perhaps was one of those well-rounded annoying kids that found interest in (and was good at) most things. When I was applying for college, I debated English vs. Chemical Engineering as a major. Practicality won out (the first true sign that I was actually an engineer).

If we were to do some sleuthing and seek out the TA from my freshman year chemistry lab, he or she would probably be floored to learn that I have become an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. You see, no one would ever have guessed this based on my freshman chemistry lab reports.

I distinctly remember that we did an experiment on Partial Molar Volumes. The experiment involved measuring volume X of water, volume Y of ethanol, mixing the two volumes together, and then measuring the resultant volume. When I conducted the experiment, my final volume was Z, where Z < X + Y.

My 18 year old brain nearly exploded and said, Wut?!?!?!! It cannot be!!!

And so I concluded that I did the experiment incorrectly and proceeded to write an entire lab report on all of the sources of error in my experiment. I did not receive a good grade*.

How on earth did I get where I am, in spite of these earlier signs that I had no business in this business? Somehow, these mistakes were overlooked. I overcame them, I suspect, only because I am willing to repeat experiments and accept results as reality when they are reproducible. I was not a lost cause, but I'm not sure anyone would have predicted that I'd turn into a good scientist.

As a professor, I'm constantly called upon to evaluate students, potential students, former students, and even other professors via peer review. And I have to ask myself, at what point can I look at a person's body of work, CV, or lab report, and be able to accurately pass judgement? To predict what he or she will become or be capable of discovering?

People are dynamic and amazing, a compilation of successes and mistakes, circumstances and genetics. We are always evolving, and always capable of becoming more than we are today.

Upon reflection, all of these experiences have forced me to place less credence in the importance of a person's background (particularly a young person) and to look more favorably upon a current desire for achievement and an underlying enthusiasm for the task at hand. These are things that cannot be taught or given. When it's my student, I can teach the rest, as someone once did for me.

*For those who are unaware, there is often a change in volume upon mixing of two components, attributed to the packing limitations of individual components. Best visual example is to take a liter of rocks and a liter of sand - when you mix them together, the sand will fill in all of the holes between the rocks, and the total volume will be much less than two liters.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Professor's Christmas Tree

Being a professor requires making sacrifices. There are only so many hours in the day, and I need to sleep for 8-9 of them*.

The latest casualty in my life has been the Real Christmas Tree. Who doesn't love the Real Christmas Tree? They are so wonderful. There is such tradition and excellence in caravanning to the countryside the Home Depot to procure a well-shaped evergreen specimen. The tree smells so good until it dies and drops pine needles all over the house. Honestly, what is not to love?

I do actually love the Real Christmas Tree. For whatever reason. And unfortunately, it is now a thing of the past for this academic. Frankly, ain't nobody got time for that.

Even if you go to your local big box supplier instead of hand cutting a wilderness beauty, you still have to haul the thing to the car, hoist it onto the roof, scratch yourself, argue with your husband about the aerodynamics of tree placement (tree stump upwind or downwind?), navigate the beast into your house, unfurl it,  and get sap all over your hands while you secure it in the plastic tree stand you ordered off of HSN for 5 payments of $6.99 + a one time shipping and handling fee that cost more than the down payment on your house. And once the whole show is over, there's the bagging it up, vacuuming the whole house including the insides of the cats' mouths, and once again arguing with said husband about which night of the week the city is allegedly picking up discarded Real Christmas Trees.

I had the energy for all of that until this job happened, and then I had none of the energy for any of that.

Thus, I give you the Professor's Christmas Tree, procured from the great establishment of Costco, appropriate for all time-saving life occasions and for those who desire martial harmony in combination with holiday feelings of peace, sanity, and togetherness. Now all I have to do is get a pine-scented candle, and we'll be all set.

Fig. 1. The Professor's Christmas Tree. Pre-lit and assembled with three sections, each with branches that unfurl with ease. Minimal fluffing required.

*Go ahead and call me obscene. I don't care. Until I have children, I will be in bed from 11-7.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Turkey's Gratitude

Thankfulness is a simple thing. In a swirling, twirling world of meetings, family obligations, and one too many consultations with the furnace guy, it's often too easy for me to say I don't have time for that.

Early in 2013, I read the amazing book, completely appropriate for Thanksgiving, A Simple Act of Gratitude. It's about how writing thank you notes can (and will) change your perspective and, ultimately, your circumstances. On one hand, expressing thanks for specific acts helps to reframe one's life in terms of what is inherently good - and positive mental health will ensue. On the other hand, the recipient of thanks is more likely to continue to be helpful in the future because she knows she is appreciated. Everyone wins.

This Thanksgiving, I am deeply grateful for a number of people in my life.

1. My husband. He's moved all around the country in support of my academic pursuits. He makes life easier when my work gets more difficult. He keeps me (marginally) balanced.

2. My family. They love me, I love them, and they make fun of me when I take myself too seriously.

3. My department. The Department of Chemical Engineering at CMU has treated me extremely well over the course of the past two years. My colleagues have made it easier for me whenever possible. They help me with writing. They read the brilliant embarrassing first drafts of grant proposals. I am given Ph.D. students. I am not overburdened with teaching or service. There are many small things that, in the end, mean everything to my happiness and peace of mind.

4. My graduate students. They are among my earliest supporters. They believe in what we are trying to achieve through our research, and they buy into the vision I've created to get us there. They almost always work hard, and they make me laugh. Their successes bring me a kind of joy I hadn't experienced before I became a professor.

The disclaimer is that this list is not meant to be all-inclusive. There are other important people in my life, like the inventors of Thorlos socks, my favorite discovery of 2014. And the CMU staff member that accepts all of my lab's VWR shipments and my occasional shipments of Kcups from Amazon Prime. You want to talk about clutch.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you gobblers out there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


This past summer, I was interviewed by a reporter who was putting together an article on my work for the MIT Technology Review. It was my first interview with a reporter, and by most measures, it went as I had imagined it would.

"Tell me about your training and background."
"Why do your delivery materials work so well?"

Etc. I smiled, I was friendly. Fine, fine, fine. But I suppose that kind of information is not the most scintillating fodder for the discerning readers of the MIT Tech Review.

So then he asked about the most pivotal event(s) in my scientific career. You know, the kinds of high drama situations that are commonplace among society's most interesting class of people: engineers. Hmm. After some thought, I related a story about how I nearly left my engineering major for the humanities during my sophomore year of college. He didn't seem to like that story. So then I told him about a conversation I had with my dying grandfather that shifted my focus and perspective on my job and my life. It was a conversation that did (and does) impact me deeply.

But I glanced up from the table, over to the reporter, and he had this look on his face, this look that said, "OMG this is the most boring person I've ever interviewed".

What did he want? I contemplated fabricating a story about a cancer-stricken relative or about how I rescued a German shepherd from a burning building and saved his life with some lipids I synthesized in the lab. Absurdity. Just be honest, Katie. You are a remarkably fascinating person in your mind.

So then he asked me to describe my favorite Eureka moment in the lab.

KW: "Eureka moment?"
Rep: "Yes, Eureka moment. You know, like the moment you discover something amazing in the lab and you instantly know that it will change the course of human history."
KW: "Uh, I've never had a Eureka moment."
Rep:"What? All successful scientists have Eureka moments."


KW: "Good engineering science is the result of a series of important moments in the lab. It's not enough to discover something once. It needs to be repeatable. It needs to work well without causing 80 million different kinds of toxicity. Such examination takes time. It takes perseverance."

He stared at me blankly, unimpressed. Apparently, I didn't conform to his notion of a successful scientist.

Weeks later, the article was published as part of the Innovators Under 35 feature. All in all, it was a nice article, and I was genuinely honored to have been included. But I was slightly embarrassed that the article ended by mentioning my lack of a Eureka moment. My friends asked why an article meant to highlight my work ended on a negative note. A colleague, just last week, brought up the article and teased me about the lack of True EurekaTM in my life.

I guess it makes me a little sad. A little angry. It's a popular view of scientific life, but it's grossly inaccurate for most of us. And in a world of ever-mounting scientific pressure, where many are bending over backwards to publish in Science and Nature, the last thing I want to see is people succumbing to the siren's call of glamorous Eureka-driven moments.

I will continue to eschew the pursuit of Eureka in my own lab,  instead choosing to get my fill at home. I encourage you to make a similar choice.