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Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Scientific Graveyard

I think it's time for a new publication, one in which we can document the things that don't work! In the "good old days" negative results were reported along with positive ones, because they do contain important information that other researchers need. But now, in this day of cut-throat competition for funding and prestige, the negative results get swept under the carpet, unmentioned, becoming the rocks upon which research careers run aground.

The other day in journal group this came up. People have been trying for years to develop and tune force fields for simulations, particularly for protein folding (ick, for the record), and we know by word-of-mouth that X tried something that didn't really work, and Y was talking about trying some sort of approach like W. But we don't know any more, and the lack of publications suggests that they weren't successful. It would be very useful to know what attempts were made, and what they found when it didn't work. But, whether because they don't get submitted or don't get accepted, papers on these things aren't appearing in top journals (or any journals, really; sometimes they're buried in a thesis somewhere).

This is a general principle. If it didn't work, perhaps there is something in the data that suggests another approach. But wait, nobody knows. That graduate student's work? It didn't really exist. Nothing to see here, move along. And, hey let's not put up a road-out-ahead sign, so that more time will be wasted. Like the cat that knocked over the vase, let's just walk away like nothing happened.

My theory for why this is the case is that the funding is so limited, and so based on prestige, that nobody will discuss it. I think this is extremely deterimental to the field (and to all the fields that this occurs in), because it's wasteful and because it moves away from a fundamental tenet of science, that a negative result is am important result.

So, in this age of blogs and ready access to information, should we have such a respository? A graveyard for the projects that went terribly wrong. I think it's a great idea.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Faux Pas?

There's a discussion going on over at academicsecret that touches on the "Imposter Syndrome," where most of us (all?) feel like somebody is going to discover that we can't do what the advertising claims. I don't want to hijack the thread over there, but I think about this a lot and want to keep chewing on it.

Like Turquoise, I had a conversation (when I was considering my current postions, actually) with one of the most respected and established members of my field (people damn near genuflect when they hear his name) in which he said the same thing Turquoise's colleague did. He said, as I was wailing about maybe not being creative enough or having enought ideas, that only the people who really were creative asked that question. His faith in me has gotten me through some of the darker times. It's incidental that it was a male colleague; what strikes me about it, instead, is the universality.

I think this is part of being smart, the creeping fear that we somehow won't be smart enough -- that no matter how smart we are (and we are very, very smart) that it's not enough. Almost all of the extremely smart people I know seem to feel it, some openly and some not. And I think the ones that don't seem to feel it are just better at camouflaging it, and less brave about admitting it.

The fear can be paralysing ("Grant proposal? Oh no, more rejections because I'm not smart enough!" -- instead of "Wow, so many great ideas that there wasn't enough left over to fund mine."), and sometimes it is. Other times, I don't seem to feel it at all. I don't have any answers, but I'd like to hear thoughts.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The glory days

My summer is half over now. Half. I find this hard to believe. But I've had some interesting (to me) realizations so far. The biggest, by far, is that I'm loving being so very far away. I have literally nothing to do but work and I'm loving it. No guilt whatsoever!

I get up in the morning, pedal my dippy little bike in (I'm still offended it's a girly-bike, but that's just me), and settle down. Twelve or fourteen hours later I go back to my little room and maybe run. The best thing I've found about the length of the days here is that I can stay later at work. A decent chunk of time is just reading blogs or playing scrabble, which I tend to view as not getting in my brain's way while it works. The rest of the time is slogging. But I'm not minding the slogging. And then, when I get home, I pick up the text I'm working through and read it for awhile. It's ridiculous; it ought to be horrible. And it's fabulous.

See, here's the thing: there is nobody and nothing here to make any sort of demands on me that aren't about research (okay, and grant proposals, but I'm not thinking about those right now). I don't have anything to tend to but my research, and I can nurture the ideas I'm having. I thought I'd be lonely, and I thought that I wouldn't like the more national-labby feel of the Institute, because I love the university environment. I was wrong. I like almost everything about being here. People are serious about just doing science, and while I find a lot of the science they're doing to be dull, it's still all about the science.

I can hide from everything else in the world (what, my president groped a foreign head of state? you don't say?) and just work. Normally, in my real world, I can't do that. I have to worry about the house, or think about healing old wounds, and work on courses, and nurture graduate students, but here I'm not in that world, and instead of feeling guilty about taking time away from those things, those obligations, to do science, I can glory in it. Glory in the hedonistic indolence of being perfectly selfish and just do science.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pink Code

I'm coding-girl today, and I painted my nails pink in honor of it. But as I sat down to code, it made me wonder: I think I've done this in the past. And that made me realize that, among the women theorists and/or computational scientists I know (a very small number, too small!) , we all do it. It's as though, by this little thing, the ritualistic donning of pink polish, we are claiming our task, somehow saying "I'm a woman in a man's game, and you're going to remember that I can play it any way I want." Being a coder, being a computer geek, being a theorist, doesn't make me unfeminine, so I remind myself once in awhile by being pink.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A few of my favorite things

So, I've been alerted that there is a care package winging its way to me from the states (thanks, Mom). It made me think on my ride home about why I've been cranky lately, and what I've been missing. Really, I have most of my favorite things:
  • coffee;
  • chocolate; and
  • cheese.
The only ones I'm missing, really (because there's not much I can do about "California," is there?) are
  • cats (and I was visited by a neighborhood cat this weekend, so I sort of have that one);
  • crime novels (do I feel clever about this one?! You bet!), and
  • chick lit (c'mon, Ms. Crusie, finish that next book!).
Is it signifigant that all of my favorite things begin with the letter "c"?

Standing on my hind legs

I'm in that wonderfully euphoric state that comes when you met all of your specific deadlines and responsibilities. I gave my last seminar of the summer today, and while it wasn't my best seminar ever, it was fine. It was on the part of my research which is mostly complete and past, and that I'm not that excited about anymore. Once in awhile, though, it is nice to return to the work from one's past, especially if one can look at it and say "that was good work, and I'm proud of it," which I can. Which means it was a good seminar, for me, anyway.

There are no more talks on my schedule -- I even resolutely refused to give another research talk next week. Nothing else to do for the rest of the summer except work! No distractions no seminars, just good science*! Oh the joy, the delight, the giddiness -- all science all the time.

*Oh, and the probable acquisition of the espresso-machine-with-spikes (!) if I ever actually get paid.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


OOOOh, Pirates came out yesterday! And I couldn't see it. At this point, I'll go see it in German, if that's what it takes. And when I get to my parents' in September, WE ARE GOING TO DISNEYLAND, AND THERE WILL BE NO ARGUING. IS THAT CLEAR?

Today's great discovery: Leibervoll has decaf!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Markt Day. I have -- with relish -- just squandered my last 50E, most of it on cheese. There was a blue that almost knocked me down; certianly it took my breath away. I can only image what my breath is now like to anyone else. It made the cheese-mongers laugh, the way I gasped.

I was late getting to the market this morning -- I got up alright, but after breakfast was seduced into a small nap. That lasted an hour. But I got to the market and got my cheese. The bread options had dwindled to almost nothing by the time I got there, but I have a walnut bread that looks promising. It is a wonderful day, not to hot but still sunny, and I suppose that everyone was up early because of it.

When I had my coffee in the Markt Square, I shared a table with a couple about my parents' age. They were very nice, and asked where I was from and what I did. So I tried to explain, but it turns out that, as hard as it is to explain my work in small words in English, it's orders of magnitude harder in German. I attribute this mostly to the fact that German scorns
small words.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

This morning I detoured through the Zentrum von Juelich to go to one of the groceries that was rumored to have decaffinated coffee. I didn't find it. Again.

I finally went to the strange little store (next to a bakery) that sells coffee and cell phone and flip-flops (and, I am told, vacation packages), threw up my hands and said pathetically "kaffeine frei?" They rescued me. Then, of course, it turned out later that, in fact, I'd seen decaf in every store, but it wasn't called what I thought it was! The group told me to look for "Kaffeinfrei" but it's apparently called "Entkaffeiniert" -- which I saw in every store but thought meant something different. Ah yes, this humility, I'm sure it's good for me in some way!

But this is the round-about way to say that the wonderful thing about the detour was that there were fresh croissants at the bakery -- fresh as in "came out of the oven while I was standing there" fresh. So I brought some to take back to the institute for morning coffee, and once in a while on the ride back the smell of warm croissant would waft forward to tantalize me. They were good, too.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence and Obligation

Today is the 4th of July, the day that we celebrate as the birth of the United States of America. Of course, it isn't really the day on which the Union was formed, which can't be localized to a single moment in any case. But that doesn't matter; what does is the moment taken to recognize the ideals for which it stood then and hopefully stands still.

For me, this means that I was never told that a girl couldn't do science (or anything else for that matter), or that I would have to bow to anyone. I am grateful for these things, and for a wealth of freedoms I enjoy every day. I also recognize that I have an obligation to my State to be an informed and active participant, which includes being a voice of dissent.

So, I encourage everyone to revisit the Constitution and its amendments, and reflect upon the ways we have -- and, more importantly, have not -- upheld them. And make plans to do a better job next year.

Happy Independence Day.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Interesting indeed

Had a rather long and convoluted arguement with my Dad about the standards to which scientists hold ourselves (and the others in our community). Then I tripped on this, over at if:book, which is an interesting read:
on the future of peer review in electronic scholarly publishing

Go check it out.

update 7

Sunday mornings in the square, no matter how sun-drenched, are apparently quiet. It's after 11, and the church organ signals the end of services. Interestingly, this group, people exiting the church, is the most racially diverse that I have seen in the town. While that doesn't really say very much, I think it does say something good about this church. There are the traditional older ladies, in alarming floral suits, and a couple of straw hats. The feathery pink delight from last week is, sadly, missing.

I have seen many good clothes, but not of the sort I would wear. For the most part the attire is staid, and actually remarkably similar to that we see daily (except that the older women are more likely here to cover their hair, and the kercheifed-Oma is common). The difference is in the cafe culture, in the time spend outside at little tables. Almost every little cafe has an outside area, and the busiest place I have seen is the ice cream parlor -- at all hours of the day!

I think that, in their longer history, what they have really learned is to savor the pleasantries. I think this lies behind the vast prevelance of bicycles, and the refusal to accept substandard food (all coffee is good coffee, for example). Certainly it lies behind their beer.

The do ignore history on one thing, thoough -- everyone here smokes, and I'm sorry, but it's gross. In addition to the nasty smell and the smoke blowing all over those of us who aren't smoking, there are these scary 1970's-esque cigarrette vending machings -- brownish horrors on street corners or attached to people's houses.

Another thing they do really well here are glasses, and since I need a new pair anyway, I think I'll get them here. Very hip, very stylish. And how is this for the embarrassment of the day -- I just had to log onto the wireless to ask if there were any cold coffees. The ridiculousness of it is utterly delicious.

Location: Currently, Berkeley, United States

I'm an academic scientist who is both abroad and a broad. I am on the road so often that I have a house solely so that my cats will have somewhere to live.

Okay, fine. If you really really want to, and don't care how long it is between mail checks, you can send email to ascientistabroad  {a}gmail{dot}com

And, okay, sometimes there are comments. But it's my blog and I'll delete anything I want.

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