All Work and No Play — OK, Maybe Just a Little Play

If you have that preconceived concept, as I once did, that scientists do nothing all day but merrily toil in their labs, pour ambiguous neon liquids from one beaker to the next and jot incomprehensible equations on a blackboard, well, sorry. That’s fiction.

The truth is that being a scientist can be a downright stressful gig.

Before they can pursue the undiscovered, they have to pursue funding so that they can actually perform the research that’s expected of them. Whenever they do don the stereotypical but regulation-required white lab coat, it’s usually to do the same tedious, non-glitzy experiment multiple times with the hope of coming up with some sort of data worth publishing. Those world-changing discoveries are few and far in between, and even then, more follow-up research must be done, which of course means more grants must be secured. It’s a vicious cycle.

Most of them also teach courses each semester, which involves a fresh new realm of stress. On top of everything else, they have to somehow squeeze in the time to create and plan lectures, hold student office hours and grade assignments and exams. (By the way, scientists and lab techs are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the U.S.)

Breathing down their necks are supervisors wanting publications, students wanting help with homework and the rest of the world wanting answers to a laundry list of questions on everything from the cosmos to cures. They have obligations to fulfill and deadlines to meet. Normal work hours and weekends are never guaranteed.

To put it bluntly, being a scientist is demanding career. Thankfully, the scientists at Texas A&M, are able to find ways to smile through it all, no matter how strenuous it gets. It’s that whole ‘all work, no play’ notion, and big surprise, they excel at that, too. Here’s a lighthearted look at some of our faculty finding joy in the job(s) they do so well.

Words of Non-Wisdom

Some days, I don’t have the words.

Other days, appearances can be deceiving. I have the illusion of words (as in, they exist on the page/screen), but upon initial re-read, I realize they aren’t worth the paper/screen they’re not printed on. Heck, this could be one of those days!

Death and taxes aside, it’s the great equalizer that happens to everyone foolhardy enough to make a career out of writing. You know, one of those things anybody can do, particularly in this empowering age of new/social media. I mean, when it comes to content, it’s anybody’s white space to fill in a society sorely lacking in critical thinking skills where, for so many, one source is as good as any other. After all, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true, right?

Yet, even science says writing is beneficial and worthwhile. Me, I’d put it right up there with alcohol and religion as one of those “all things in moderation” cases. But that’s because I know from decades of personal experience that, for all its catharsis, it’s a struggle that’s real if not always transferable.

It’s a given that few people beyond other writers truly can appreciate what goes into good writing — a highly elusive and even more subjective term on the best of days. It’s an at-times exhausting process, having to constantly be creative-on-demand on top of inventive, resourceful, investigative, upbeat and interested/interesting, knowing that the ultimate reward is having to gear up to do it all over again the moment the effort at hand is deemed worthy and complete. A double-shot of Dorothy Parker (props to the dedicated writer who manages her public figure Facebook page, Ellen Meister) readily leaps to mind for good reason:

DorothyParker_TypewriterDorothyParker_WriterEncouragement

Science writing is a whole new world, one in which your challenge long before facing that inevitable blank page with its mockingly blinking cursor is to become an overnight expert on any number of topics your sources have devoted their entire careers to studying — a daunting, somewhat egotistical, yet professionally necessary and proper task for someone who, let’s face it, didn’t exactly excel in these subjects in college. Fortunately, the majority of sources I’ve encountered are true educators willing to overlook and compensate for my shortcomings, but still, there’s definitely a certain degree of pressure, self-induced or otherwise. Some days, I get it and it shows; other days, well, it shows then, too. But there’s one positive side effect (note to my kids): I can research with the best of them.

Oh, and did I mention that for me, perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand? Apparently, I have that in common with lots of others. That old best-quality-is-often-your-worst-quality concept. Same song, different verse, but at least that one wasn’t my assignment.

Some days, I long for a return to the times of Gutenberg. Funny thing is, it’s often words that snap me out it, from a catchy headline or teaser copy to emails from friends and faculty like Nick Suntzeff — missives that I wouldn’t be so fortunate to receive in such pre-Renaissance days. These harbingers of hope help me see I am not alone and that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously sometimes in my efforts, particularly when they involve mischaracterizing or overhyping science (Nick’s own motivation for writing that day – ha!)

Incidentally, if I can point to an example in my portfolio for each category listed — or better yet work all 14 into a single piece, and I think this one comes close — does that mean I’ve officially arrived as a science writer?

In a word, writing is a psychosis — a self-prescribed mixture of pleasure and pain. As writers, we’re constantly playing a part, investing in others’ dreams, adventures and back stories, sometimes at the expense of our own. It’s no surprise in ways that the profession (not unlike that of actors, entertainers, musicians and comedians — vocations that all tie back to writing) is littered with antisocial, depressed and/or suicidal drunks. But hey, I suppose that’s channeling Hemingway.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . . .

HemingwayQuote_Writing

Core Competency

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, one of the many perks of my job is having experts at my fingertips. With a simple email, phone call or Facebook message, I can get instant feedback concerning the day’s top headlines, scientific and beyond.

Take for instance last week’s reports celebrating discovery of oceans of water beneath the Earth’s surface. I happened to catch a radio snippet recapping the Huffington Post’s version of the story as I was heading solo to the grocery store on a rare Friday vacation day. (Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are as to what qualifies as vacation for this full-time working mom of three ages 10 and under. But that’s another story with neither experts nor answers!) Intrigued, I first Googled the story to find out where it originated (Northwestern University), then emailed my friend Wolfgang Bangerth, a Texas A&M mathematician and author of a modeling software program, ASPECT, that is designed to develop, among so many other things, clearer pictures of Earth’s interior.

Besides being a computational scientist and modeling genius, Wolfgang is no slouch when it comes to geophysics — or any engineering-related branch of science, in my experience. While I knew this would be right up his alley, I didn’t realize he was in South Korea at the time teaching a weeklong workshop. Distance certainly didn’t affect his ability to advise nor my efforts to produce a press release on the subject with his copious help.

(Here’s an example of Wolfgang’s ASPECT-driven work — convection in a 3D box. Reminds me of those cool optical illusion-type puzzles you got as a kid or the nifty gel-based paperweights you sometimes see in science-types offices!)

For me, curiosity is right up there with a sense of humor and vocabulary prowess in the way of appealing attributes, but I do so love it when others share my enthusiasm for a spur-of-the-moment idea, PR-related and otherwise. Wolfgang certainly went the extra mile (pun intended) to bring this one to fruition, paying me and other communicators what I consider to be the ultimate compliment during a side discussion concerning my use of the formal “Dr.” title with him out of habitual respect:

“It’s a title. I got it by doing my job, not by being particularly brilliant. As for respect, you are doing a fantastic job, too, and I do respect that just as much. At a university, we’re a team. You can’t do your job without us, and we can’t do it without people like you. I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat each other as equals.”

Well said as always, my wise friend. Let the record show (at least in this piece) that I’m recovering nicely.

Thank you, Wolfgang, for the global assist and the team affirmation. Awesome to the core!

Another bonus of being friends with such world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Another bonus of being friends with such a world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

You Are Enough

HemingwayQuoteDear Student,

You almost walked out on a Team Exercise today because you weren’t prepared, and you didn’t want to freeload. I admire that, but I asked you to stay and to learn, because the point of the Team Exercise isn’t the grade; it’s to help the members of the team to better understand the lesson.

At some point we will all walk in unprepared, and have to ask our team to help us out. That’s why some of the hard stuff is Team Stuff, rather than individual. Because I think that having you work together will cause more learning than if I just preach it at you.

I still felt terrible because you did today. And I questioned myself and what I was doing.

I talked to you for while late this afternoon, and there are other things going on in your life. This class isn’t easy for you, and logistics lately have been difficult. I get the feeling there are other things too. You apologized to me, but no apology is necessary. This is my job. I am here to try to help you learn. I know that other things get in the way. I know how they get in the way. I’ve lived that. I just wish you knew it, too. You are worthy of being here. Worthy of my effort. Worthy of the help from your team. Worthy of being taken seriously. Worthy of help. Maybe worthy of better than I am capable of giving you.

ValueI know that you are the type of person who wants to be the one to help others. If another came to you unprepared, or unable to get something, or struggling, you’d be proud to be the person to help them out. You’d treat all their problems with loving kindness. That loving kindness that you’d so easily give to someone else is the loving kindness I want you to give yourself right now.

Just hang in there. Just keep trying. And seeing the high level of frustration and pain I saw in your face today, just in case, I want to say: If there comes a point where you realize or decide that this is not for you, I want you to know that is okay, too. You are still worthy and worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like we are deep in a dark tunnel with no way to climb out. And I can’t even tell you how to get out, except that you have to just keep at it.

I didn’t have the exact right words to say to you. I can only hope that the ones I had were enough to plant this idea, for it to grow and blossom later. You are enough. Just as you are. Deserving of respect and love and help. If you can’t trust yourself to judge that, I hope you can trust me.

Sincerely,

Dr. Linhart

LoveLeaf

(Credit: Alex Eastman)


Leaders With Character

As August, the Sunday of summer, dawns hot and humid and another school year is upon us, I can’t help but think back to my own days as a freshman in Aggieland and everything I’ve lived and learned since that time — save obviously the way out of town after graduation, despite the infamous Aggie adage about Highway 6 running both ways. (It does, Mom; and I apologize, both in retrospect and advance.)

An article I received today from a friend reminded me of another classic Aggie-ism:

Q. What do you call an Aggie five years after graduation? A: Boss.

It then dawned on me as I skimmed through Inc.com’s aforementioned best-boss attributes that, by virtue of staying in Aggieland after earning my Texas A&M degree, the majority of my bosses have been Aggies. I’ve learned a lot from each of them, with the good far outweighing the bad. None more so than Dean of Science Joe Newton, my first thought in reading 21st century tips on how to manage like a boss.

Dr. Newton is a rare bird, and not just because he lives in both hemispheres of his brain (while I struggle on good days to function in one) and can flit effortlessly and eloquently from side to side and throughout all neural synapses in between. Admittedly, I’m biased, but I happen to have one extraordinary boss who trusts me enough to let me do the job he hired me to do (not once but twice, but that’s another story altogether.) Novel yet seemingly terrifying concept for some people both ways, not to mention one that speaks volumes in a unit where professional expertise is king. And yes, we have fun doing it!

Dean of Science Joe Newton, being "crowned" by Executive Associate Dean Michael Hall in 2002, when he officially became Dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University. In January, Dr. Newton celebrated his 15th year of service as a member of the Texas A&M Science Dean's Office.

Dean of Science Joe Newton, being “crowned” by Executive Associate Dean Michael Hall in 2002, when he officially became Dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University. In January, Dr. Newton celebrated his 15th year of service as a member of the Texas A&M Science Dean’s Office.

In my high school days, Mom once jokingly (at least I think) threatened to get me a copy of the classic poster featuring a pig and the slogan “You are a product of your environment.” Here’s hoping she was right and that I have another 20 years or so to absorb, evolve and enjoy!