Friday, November 6, 2015

The AIChE Annual Meeting: A Primer

Once a year, the heavens part, and thousands of chemical engineers rain down upon a fortuitous city somewhere in the U.S.A., gathering for the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) meeting. That's pronounced A-I-C-H-E, not achy. My heart is neither achy nor breaky in the face of so many dimensionless parameters.

When we're in San Francisco, we get stuffed like sardines into a Hilton the size of my elementary school, where we get pressed against other suit-clad bodies in elevators, 15 - 14 - 13 - God help us why are there so many floors in this hotel??

When we're in Pittsburgh, there will be some kind of highly improbable weather event, like Frankenstorm, that will ruin plenary sessions left and right, filling the world of chemical engineering with utter CHAOS.

Lucky ducks, this year, next week (Nov. 8-13), we will convene in Salt Lake City, home of the 10 mile long city blocks and convention-center-provided beer no greater than 3.2% alcohol. No one should ever carp about free beer, that's what I say. But you know, academics love to complain.

The AIChE meeting is a bit of an anomaly compared to other conferences, and if you've never been there before, you undoubtedly have unanswered questions. Let me see if I can help.


1. What can I expect from scientific sessions?
This entirely depends on your field. AIChE is a major meeting for traditional chemical engineering fields of research, including fluid dynamics, chemical processes, etc. Some of the premiere groups in these areas will be presenting their work, and they take the conference very seriously from a scientific perspective.
Some of the "newer" disciplines within chemical engineering - including bioish areas like my own - do not necessarily enjoy the same scientific rigor at AIChE. Now, there are plenty of interesting talks, and the quality has improved greatly over the course of the past 10 years. However, this is just not the "it" conference for these interdisciplinary fields, in part, I would think, because many of the major players in these fields are not chemical engineers - they would not normally attend AIChE.
2. What can I expect by way of networking?
You can expect a lot! Networking is not as formalized as at some other conferences (e.g. Gordon Research Conferences, where attendees eat each meal together). But there are lots of opportunities to get to know other chemical engineers and to reconnect with former colleagues and friends.

The most important opportunities are at the evening receptions hosted by various chemical engineering departments from across the country. For example, the Tufts reception is typically held on Sunday nights, Carnegie Mellon on Monday nights, and Minnesota on Tuesday nights (among many, many others). At conference registration, there will be a stapled sheet of networking/"extra" events throughout the conference - all of the advertised receptions will be on this list. For 2015, there is also an online list here. There are also unadvertised receptions that you may receive invitations to if you are associated with or have friends at a particular school.

Receptions often feature free food and drinks (yes, including alcoholic beverages, sometimes even hard liquor). Chemical engineers become amazingly more fun in the presence of vodka. It's also way easier to network with a bit of social lubrication. Just make sure you don't overdo it if you're trying to make a good impression on someone (anyone). I've seen plenty of people consume too many glasses of wine and embarrass themselves mightily.

Make sure to meet new people, and don't just hang out in a corner stuffing your face with freshly carved roast beef. Most conference attendees are friendly, so feel free to approach people you don't know, introduce yourself, and ask them some questions. Remember, most people like to talk about themselves. If whoever you approach is not friendly, move on to the next engineer. Eventually, you will make a connection!
3. Do I need to be affiliated with a school in order to attend its reception?
No. But it's my personal recommendation that if you go to a random school's reception, make sure to network and not just eat their food. Because that's kind of tacky. (The individual departments, not AIChE, foot the bills for these receptions.)
4. What should I wear?
Chemical engineers are amazingly formal people. If you have a suit, break it out. Even if it's tweed or polyester, you probably won't be that out of place at this conference. Most engineers are hardly fashionable and rely heavily on wearing black and gray. This is not the time to take the phrase "orange is the new black" literally.

I, personally, do not wear a suit every day. But I always go with dress pants or a knee-length skirt, nice shoes, often a blazer. I'd recommend the same for men (swapping ties for skirts). Ladies, please leave your 4 inch heels and tight dresses at home. I wish people were non-judgmental enough for your to be able to wear this without issue, but we're not there yet. You want people at AIChE judging you for your scientific and professional merit, not for your perceived sexual availability.
4. Does the conference provide coffee? More specifically, WHERE WILL I GET COFFEE?
This is an especially excellent question. The AIChE meeting, despite its offensively high registration fees, does not provide anything other than water. There usually isn't even wi-fi available at the conference site. So, definitely no coffee. Therefore, you must get your own. Remember that there can be very long lines for coffee before the 8:30 am sessions, especially if the talks are being held in hotels (not the case in SLC). You will have better luck leaving the hotel/convention center for coffee if you need it in short order. Of course, it will also be less expensive for all of you frugal engineers out there.
 5. Given the high density of engineers, is this going to be the most boring meeting of all time?
Not in the slightest. AIChE is one of my favorite meetings of the year because of the networking. There is no other time that I get to see my friends and former colleagues who are spread all over the country working in fields very far outside of my own. Take advantage of the unique opportunity to connect with chemical engineers from every discipline, and you will not be bored at all.
See you in SLC! Feel free to join us and say hi at the CMU reception on Monday evening from 7-9 pm in the Salt Palace Convention Center, Room 155D. If anyone has other hot AIChE related tips, or more unanswered questions, please leave them in the comments.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Three Years

Three years is what it takes for me to feel home, to feel comfortable. I've seen it over and over in my life, as I've moved from place to place. I don't know what it is about three years, I don't know if it has more to do with forgetting where I've been or fully embracing the present.

Even though I had known for some time that I wanted to be a professor, I was still uncomfortable with various (many?) aspects of it when I got started. How much could I expect of students? How much could I ask? What would be the best way to interact with my colleagues? And how on earth should I lecture? Should I use the black/white board, the doc cam, powerpoint slides???

I don't think I did anything too crazy in the first couple of years (with the exception of a department holiday party, but that is neither here nor there). It was an information gathering phase. I was constantly asking my colleagues what they would do in certain situations, and then I would try some combination of what felt right and what was comfortable. (I think real confidence is required to always be comfortable doing what feels right).

I've spent a fair amount of time comparing myself to how my Ph.D. advisor did things, and wondering if it was okay if I did things differently. Although the answer may seem self-evident, when you're beginning this brand new, super complicated job that does not come with an instruction manual, you may find yourself attempting to imitate the one person you most intimately observed running their own group. But as every student is unique, so is every PI. And although I hope to be kind as my Ph.D. advisor is kind, and to have an impact as he has had an impact, I have come to terms with the fact that I will run my group differently. 

In any event, my three year anniversary will be this December, and I am finally feeling like even though the semester is crazy, even though I am overwhelmed and sometimes can't understand how all of the items on my check list will get checked - I am at peace with the dynamic nature of this job and my ability to handle it. It is a product of experience. And although I am in no way delusional enough to believe I've seen it all, I've seen enough to know that I am almost always and forever going to be surprised by something happening at this very moment. And it's the recognition that I can't control it that in some way brings me comfort - like riding a mechanical bull, I'm just trying to stay on, and perhaps I can even do it with style.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An Ode to Ms. Stoops

When I was 12, I wrote my first short story. It was called "The Trials and Tribulations of the Seventh Grade", and it was awful. It was about about seventh grade students that teach their overbearing teacher a lesson of her own when they set a liquidy water trap that sends her careening down the hall. This stunningly ridiculous incidence is enough to cause introspection within the offending teacher, and an apology to the class. A happy ending ensues with the teacher and students doing crafts and singing Kumbaya. 

I issued four printed copies of this masterpiece, covered with gruesome, hand-drawn illustrations of seventh graders that were, apparently, part ape and part skeleton. The only person besides my mother who read the story, cover to hideous cover, was my seventh grade teacher, Ms. Stoops.

Ms. Stoops thought my short story was amazing. Ms. Stoops, herself, was an amazing person. Ms. Stoops thought all of my creative efforts, including short stories, poetry, and historical mobiles, were worthy of praise. She wore crazy, colorful clothing, and when I'd bring her one of my nauseatingly trite poems, she would act it out in front of the blackboard, bringing life and drama to the flat words scrawled in my green poetry notebook. She encouraged me to be as creative as possible and celebrated each of my artistic accomplishments in her loving, theatrical style. She challenged me to have a bigger impact, to take bigger risks, and to share my inside with the world around me.

This blog exists, in no small part, because of Ms. Stoops. Because I trust that other people may find value or amusement in what I write, as Ms. Stoops once did. My lab exists, in no small part, because of Ms. Stoops. Because someone once pushed me to develop creative ideas of my own making.

I am grateful.

I am grateful I told her what she meant to my life and my career. I learned today that she has died at the too-soon age of 55. I am grateful that she impacted scores of other children during her life, and I know the world is a better, more interesting place because she was in it.

It is my hope that each one of us has a Ms. Stoops somewhere - someone with a big mind and a big heart to validate our fantastical efforts and to encourage us to move beyond the ordinary.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Infertile Academic

June is worldwide infertility month. Infertility is a topic not often discussed, and it warrants more attention and less stigma - after all, it affects approximately 1 in 10 couples attempting to procreate. A healthy slice of the pie, you might say.

If you are an academic and you are infertile, you may occasionally google “infertile academic” or “infertile professor” or “why is everything so @!*# hard”, as I have done. You may find what I have found: almost nothing. Almost no one. A pseudononymous blogger. A lot of silence.

Social media in the academic world is chalk-full of conversations on 1) the funding climate, 2) challenges facing women and underrepresented minorities, and 3) achieving work-life balance. The latter is my personal favorite (where is my sarcasm font?).

Is it possible to do it all?

The dearth of daycare at universities in America

How to have a family AND a killer scientific career in sixty-four simple steps

It’s not that these topics are not important or legitimate- they are. They affect many of us as academics and as human beings. But I suspect that I am not the only one to feel twinges of sadness (or anger, depending on the day) when such headlines fill my Twitter feed. You see, I haven’t gotten to the point where I can even consider such issues in my own life. Some of the articles that I’d write instead include:

How to do work when you’re sad

Coping with simultaneous grant rejection and IVF failure

Five responses to people who blame your infertility on your career

But today is not the day for those scintillating would-be articles. Today is simply a day for me to raise my hand in the crowd and to say to anyone else who may be looking: I am here. I have been living this reality every day for four years, and I am a real person with a real research group and a real CV. You are not alone.

I don’t have any answers. I move forward because that’s the only thing I can do. Sometimes, I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I know that I shouldn’t give up. Neither should you.


*For more information on what to say and what not to say to your infertile friends, please visit this article. A synopsis: DO offer hugs and a listening ear. DON'T try to solve the problem or avoid the people involved.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Professors Don't Sleep

When I was a 3rd year graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, the state of California plunged into financial chaos. One of the results was that UC tuition went up as support from the state for higher education took a hit.

One Friday afternoon at our departmental happy hour, a senior professor and I were discussing the state budget cuts and the tuition hikes. He leaned in a little closer, and confided,

I stay awake all night wondering how I'll pay for my students. 

And I said, "You literally cannot sleep because of this?"


And so I spent the rest of my days at UCSB wondering why this particular professor worried so much, and how on earth it was possible to be so upset by your work life that it actually affected your quality of sleep. 

Looking back, I am glad there was a time in my life when my "normal" was falling asleep each night within five minutes of hitting the pillow. I'm not sure exactly when that changed, but I suspect it started around the time I was interviewing for TT jobs, and it has only become increasingly pronounced since then.

Nowadays, you can find me reading the news on Flipboard, compulsively clicking on any of the articles that pop up under the category "Sleep Self Help for Professors and Other Type A Personalities". Yes, that category actually exists. My problem is that no amount of hot frickin' chamomile tea before bed is going to quiet the approximately 942 things tumbling around in my brain.

I realize that you may have some questions regarding the Professors Don't Sleep phenomenon, as I once did.

So what does a professor think about while being unable to fall asleep at night?
  1. Everything. 
  2. Lack of grant money. 
  3. See number 1.
What do you think are the underlying causes of your sleeplessness?
  1. The stakes are higher than they ever used to be.
  2. My work involves so many more people than it used to (e.g. my PI and me). Sometimes, I have to make serious decisions that affect people's lives.
  3. My work involves so many more elements than it used to - instead of thinking only about the projects a single person can accomplish, I now think about all of my trainee's projects.
Can you give me an example of a time you couldn't sleep?
Yes. Two weeks ago, I was vacationing in Iceland, and the night before we left, I couldn't fall asleep. I was tossing and turning, and my husband couldn't sleep either. He asked me what was on my mind. I told him that I couldn't stop thinking about a manuscript I needed to write. This was absolutely absurd. My mind, at that moment, was obsessed with writing the manuscript, but I couldn't have written it right then, right there, even if I wanted to. After all, I was in Iceland, a foreign country, lying in bed with no computer, no data, in the middle of the night. There was absolutely no good that could come of me staying awake ruminating about this half-finished manuscript.
So what strategies do you use to fall asleep?
  1. Chamomile tea
  2. Counting backwards from 200 by 7
  3. Focused breathing: inhale for 4s, hold for 6s, exhale for 7s
  4. Barrel rolls in the sheets
  5. Singing
Channeling my inner Madonna:

Papa, don't preach,
I've been losing sleep, 
Professors count sheep, 
I'm in trouble deep,
But I've made up my mind, 
I'm keeping my career. 
Oooh, I'm gonna keep my ca-reer, yeah.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Illusions of Fame

Samir Mitragotri was assigned as my Ph.D. advisor when he was starting his 4th year on the tenure track at UC Santa Barbara. He seemed pretty old me to, but, in reality, he was something like 32 at that time. I thought he was amazing. He worked in the area of drug delivery, and he was famous. He had won several awards, and when I visited UCSB as a senior in college, he offered to let me try his Thai Iced Tea, which was one of the best drinks to ever touch my lips. Altogether, I thought that Samir, as a total package, was pretty darn good.

A couple of years later, in 2004, I began attending conferences. Other academics would ask, Who's your advisor?, and I'd proudly say, Samir Mitragotri. Usually, people had no idea who he was. Samir Migratory?, they'd ask.

Ah yes, the Samir: the migratory, brown, Thai iced tea-drinking bird of the Indian subcontinent.

I was perplexed by these conference-goers' seeming cluelessness. How could they not know him?, I would wonder, He is famous!

Oh, little lamb, spring chicken, my former self. 

Ten years later, and I am now intimately familiar with the non-fame associated with being a young, untenured professor. Nonetheless, I am tickled when I remember how enamored I was with his scientific prowess, and how I never once questioned his suitability as my advisor despite his young academic age. Part of me says that maybe I was simply naive, the other part of me says that my instincts were right.

Fame is relative, and while my Ph.D. advisor has not become a household name in the United States, he was elected a couple of months ago to the National Academy of Engineering. I was and am so excited for him. I was there when he was starting, when his lab's work began gelling together. I don't know if, at the time, his head swirled with all of the thoughts that collide around mine. But I'm proud that I was with him at that stage, and that I found him worthy of the recognition he was en route to receiving.

One day last month, I was reflecting on all of this, and I asked my most senior Ph.D. student why he chose to work with me. He said he felt really passionately about the lymphoma drug delivery project. When I asked if it bothered him that I was a new professor, he said no. He said not a word about me being famous - but, for his sake (and for mine), I'm glad that wasn't a criterion.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Stone Cutter, Woman of Tin

There was one, then the other
From out of the clutter
An extraordinary
in less than ordinary
fashion of a lover
Of Science!
You utter
It’s my half-blooded brother
Grown in the incubator
Of my earth mother’s
My earth mother’s heart.
My earth mother’s lungs.
My earth mother’s lips.
This dip, this trip
Marooned with the lobsters
On a finals week ship
Where you can’t imagine
Your next of kin
A near win
When you’re wondering where to go
(Stone cutter, woman of tin)
Keep going.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

March Madness

You want to talk madness. March is madness. Last week rendered me nearly unrecognizable.

Fig. 1. Professor Whitehead a la the end-of-March.
Of particular note is the thinning hair, the paranoid visage, and lips that have morphed into zippers.

I've only been on the job for two and some years, so it's hard to draw any firm conclusions. But March seems like its the Grand Beast of the year. We've been in-semester for 7 months with only winter "break" to give us "respite". Where "respite" is defined as a chance to travel to multiple states/countries on a quest to make up for all of the time you didn't spend with your and/or your spouse's family in the last 12 years. Put briefly: we are tired.

We're coming around a bend, though. We just interviewed our last faculty candidate, and we have only a couple of seminar visitors left. I teach my last class 38 days from today. Then, Professor Whitehead is out for the summer and ZOMG she is going to do All of the Science and grow amazing things in the garden. This year, I'll be growing crazy a** fruit-berry things, including Naranjilla, from the northwestern part of South America.

Fig. 2. The Naranjilla, aka Solanum quitoense, is neither a tomato nor a berry. Discuss. This plant gets inch long red thorns, which is awesome.


All of the madness and the belly-aching about the madness gives me pause, though. Sometimes I feel like I'm caught in this trap where I'm always looking forward to something in the not-so-distant future. I'll feel better once the big presentation is over, or once I get that grant submitted. But after two years of doing this job, it's become clear that this is life. All of these passing phases are not a passing phase. These phases, this job, is a privilege. We get to do many things. And perhaps it's time to start enjoying it for what it is when it is it.

March is mad because the university is teeming with life. Undergrads are clamoring to find positions for the summer, seminar speakers talk about inspired science, grad students are defending, and we get to consider new faculty members and all of the vision and new directions they might bring to our department in the years to come. We've worked hard for the past seven months to make March mad. So maybe I should savor it while I can, before my weird summer berries take over the garden.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

To succeed in life, you need two things:
ignorance and confidence.
- Mark Twain

I've been working hard on my own creativity this past year. Challenging myself to think of outrageous and beautiful concepts, to ask what would I could I do if I set aside what I already know.

The result has been several interesting ideas. One - my lab is currently turning into a reality. Others - we've yet to begin. Last week, I was riding in the car in silence when I had an idea so wild that I nearly pulled over to call my mom. I've excitedly told several people who have replied with various shades of

you're insane
smoke another one
let's put you away before you spend any more money. 


And in trying to find creativity, I've been thinking a lot about the process itself. I don't think it's a coincidence that most of my favorite ideas are on the fringes of my area of expertise. It's one of the only ways I don't have the voice inside my head saying no, no, no, that is ridiculous, that won't work.

Ignorance need not be negative. Not always. It need not be clueless. It need not be a put-down.

Within the word ignorance is the root ignore. And within the cacophony of thousands of published journal articles and the self-proclaimed expertise of many a conference bloviator (e.g. I've been in this field for 30 years...) comes a plea for silence. For a moment, just a moment, to ignore the weighty wisdom of our forefathers and the guy down the hall.

And suddenly, in the quiet, there is room for something new.

This week, I challenge you to spend time in a silent space and to ask yourself what may be possible.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vulnerability and Study Section

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change."

These words from Brene Brown jumped out at me one day as I listened to a TED podcast (Making Mistakes) on the way to work.

"That's really it, isn't it?" I thought. "That's exactly correct."

Vulnerability is the predominant reason why we don't innovate, are not creative, and aren't inclined to change. It's because we have to open ourselves to judgment, and sometimes attack. As animals, we have been designed to avoid vulnerability.


At no point in my career have I experienced vulnerability and rejection to the same extent as I do today. It's the grant proposals, of course.

I submitted my first NIH R01 application in October, and it was reviewed by a study section that met this past week. The likelihood that my proposal will be funded is low (median age of first R01 is a sobering 41, and I am all of 34).

OK. But you can't win if you don't play, so I gathered my ammunition and I polished it until it gleamed like the light of a thousand suns. And then I rammed it into the barrel of a canon and shot it  down to Bethesda, MD where it was received by someone who told me that I need to start coming up with better analogies if I'm going to use them so frequently in my writing.

For those that don't know, NIH submissions are reviewed by three scientists who give preliminary scores. If I was lucky, the average score for my proposal fell into the top 50% of New Investigator submissions to the study section (NI submissions are reviewed separately from other apps). In which case, the reviewers would present my proposal to the rest of the study section, lively discussion would ensue, judgement would happen, and I'll receive a score and feedback at some point hopefully in the near future.

Anyway, I did my best, and there's nothing more I can do at this point. Nonetheless, I've been feeling extra vulnerable in recent weeks, knowing that other scientists out there have been actively judging my (best) efforts, potentially in less-than-flattering ways.

It's like standing naked in front of a group of your peers, wondering where you left your damn towel. They're scrutinizing your love handles (your preliminary data), the superfluous mole you recently developed on your thigh (your credentials), and the tone of your biceps (your writing ability). Very quickly, they will cast judgement upon your body (your entire application), which is a cumulative product of many years of scientific effort, mental exercise, and dietary choices.

This is vulnerability.

Some criticism is easier to handle than others. You try not to take it personally, right? But when reviewers tell you that your Winter LayerTM is overly ambitious and lacks adequate definition, it hurts. Meanwhile, you are still looking for your towel.


I can't do good science without funding. I can't help patients without funding. Every day, the ideas that swirl around my head get better and better, and I am so eager to do lots of science. But I can't do any of that without funding, without being judged, without opening up my own best efforts for others to scrutinize.

Practice helps. Deep breathing helps. But mostly, it's a desire to do something meaningful with my life. When I think about that, the hard parts of this job become easier.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Acute Dynamic Range of Professorial Moods

This job has acute peaks and valleys, sometimes over very short time scales. Let's consider the past 24 hours:

1. Read paper from a Nature X journal. Loved the concept and the work that was done but was seething mad that what was reported to be 8 years of data were crammed into 3 figures with 85 panels each. After getting out the magnifying glass and scouring the supplementary information, I could not figure out several critical aspects of the study. The information wasn't there/didn't fit/was overlooked. All this work, crammed into a Letter. This is the onus to publish Letters in Nature subjournals?!? An excellent study served up with injustice via space limitations and undoubtedly extra needless experiments that the discerning reviewers just couldn't live without. This stuff makes me mad as hell because it shortchanges everyone - except, possibly, the journal.

2. Shortly thereafter, I received a surprise email inviting me to dinner with a famous scientist. I was delighted, and temporarily forgot my anger over the Nature X paper.

3. I went to the office to review grant proposals. They were bad. This was expected, since I preliminarily organized the proposals based on the quality of their abstracts and then review them from "worst" to "best". It is amazing how cranky you can get after reading someone else's crappy grant proposal. PLEASE, PROPOSAL WRITERS EVERYWHERE: Use verbs, use punctuation, and for the love of God, if there is not a single paragraph break or figure or anything other than block text with maxed out margins on an entire page, expect your reviewer(s) to be exceedingly irritated. Wow, I was not a pleasant dinner companion after all of that.

4. This morning, one of my favorite things ever, and it happens every so often: one of my students told me that I had a good idea. I love it and find it amusing in so many different ways. But after all of the other highs and lows, it helps to validate that a) I do indeed belong in my job and b) I am occasionally useful to my smarty pant students.

                                                   Figure 1. What it feels like to be me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dewar's and Water with a Twist

With the new year, I began my preparations for the semester.

But last week, my grandmother died. Death and academic BS don't mix very well.

My Nan-Nan was absolutely the best. She was always proud of me, no matter what I did. She thought it was wonderful that I was smart and that I could do many things. But ultimately, she would have loved me even if I couldn't find my way out of a paper bag. She would have seen the value in me even if I didn't go to grad school, even if I wasn't an engineer, even if I hadn't become a professor, one of the alleged pinnacles of my profession. She saw value in many things that others didn't.

She wouldn't be bothered by all of my grant rejections. She wouldn't care at all as to what the NSF reviewers thought of my preliminary data. I'm sure she wouldn't like peer review.

If she was here, she would offer me a scotch and a back scratch.

                                             Fig. 1. Nan-Nan reacts to peer review.