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.