ComSciCon Cornell 2016

cornellHave you ever gotten the sense that your journal articles, press releases, or blog posts are little more effective than shouting into a void? I feel you!

I’ve recently returned from Ithaca, New York, where I attended a ComSciCon conference: a workshop for graduate students about tactics, strategies, and even whole careers in effectively communicating about science to people who aren’t familiar with the field.

Writing has always been important to me, and one of the reasons research is an exciting career to me is because of how much writing it involves. I’ll finally have something worth writing about!

But graduate students often don’t have formal requirements or even available courses about how to reach non-scientists. In my program, we are lucky that one of our first-year courses (called “the Engaged Intellectual”) covered what it means to be a public figure as a scientist, and a few ways of doing so. I (predictably) got excited about the idea of writing for non-scientist audiences, and I started this blog after taking that course! I am so glad I was alerted to the options about public communication of science in my first semester so I can pounce on opportunities to develop the skills and experience I’ll need.

ComSciCon offered talks and panels with practical advice about writing, being interviewed by the press, and even interacting with policy-makers. I loved hearing about all kinds of science that I know nothing about: diseases in cattle, lasers, cancer treatments, and bees that live under ground, to name a few. We each wrote a piece intended for general audiences, got peer feedback, updated our drafts, and then got expert feedback. There were lots of interactive exercises and a chance to give and hear a 60 second “pop talk.” The food was good, too :)

A big takeaway from the conference for me is that I can do this. From where I sit, it feels like I only just now am seeing how much there is to learn and how little I know. Who am I to write as an expert? But ComSciCon helped me see that there’s a lot I can in fact offer, and perhaps I can bring some sense of the wonder and curiosity and creativity involved in science to my science writing. The idea that “I know so little!” is closely followed by, “Let’s go find out!”

So how will ComSciCon change my life?

First, I’m going to start thinking more about policy. I came into it looking for tips and feedback, but I left actually quite excited about policy. I care a lot about politics, but I’ve done very little (other than vote, of course) because I haven’t felt like I could. Knowing that my research can help inform policy and that politicians are actually interested in talking to scientists was really empowering and exciting!

Second, I am going to write more about science. Mostly I’ve been writing about what it’s like to be a graduate student because those are the kinds of blogs I read before heading off to school. But maybe that’s not all I can offer. It would be good practice for me to write up findings from studies I’m reading in Regular Human English, a good opportunity to think about its broader impacts, and perhaps interesting to the general Internet. I learned at the conference that 58% of online adults have a broad interest in science and technology, but it comprises only 2% of news coverage. I’m not going to fill that gap alone, but it’s encouraging to know that there are people who wouldn’t find it boring if they stumbled on to it :)  So look forward to more posts about the kinds of science I am reading and doing!

Third, I am going to talk about the excitement of doing science in this venue and elsewhere. Somehow, I made it all the way through elementary, middle, and high school, plus 5 years of college and a Master’s degree without noticing how exciting science is. As a kid, I definitely got the sense that adults were excited about science, but I could never figure out why. Science class meant memorizing old findings, writing super formal reports, and doing “experiments” which were in no way experimental– the adults in the room knew exactly what would happen. I never noticed that being a scientist would mean asking questions that no one knew the answer to and working out how to find the answer. Science class involved no creativity (except when we got to make a poster!) and actual science feels like all creativity, all the time (except when I have to make a poster 😉 Neither science class nor social studies clued me in to the fact that social science exists and is fascinating. I wish I would have noticed this sometime before my mid-twenties, so I’ll try to pass along my enthusiasm.

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MOOC Week 2: In Which I Cry More than Once

This week in our Machine Learning Coursera class, we had an assignment! So far, we’ve just had formative and evaluative assessments, but today we had to actually program something. I am, let’s say, “under-experienced” with programming. Up until yesterday, my programming accomplishments have been: messing with existing HTML/CSS to make my website pretty, a couple codeacademy courses more than a year ago, and a statistics class, in which I wrestled with R every week to find the correct freaking working directory. Once, with lots of help, I made a button in Javascript. It counted how many times it was pressed. It took hours to make and I cried, but eventually, it worked.

the bowl-shaped plot of a cost function
A cost function, J(θ), for a univariate regression model. Here, θ is a matrix of two values, which are represented on the lower axes: a coefficient for one variable x and a y intercept.

Our assignment yesterday involved programming a Cost Function (in ML, a function mapping the sums of squared errors resulting from potential regression coefficients applied to the same data, which are serving here as training data) and the meaty part of a gradient descent algorithm– a program that will grope around on that cost function (hopefully in an orderly way) to find its minimum. The goal of this exercise is to find the point where the error between the model’s predictions and the actual values are the lowest: the best model to predict future data.

Well. As you can imagine, this was somewhat harder than my hard-won Javascript button. It also involved a lot of matrix algebra, which I had happily forgotten existed up until a week ago.

I made my life significantly more difficult by leaving this assignment to the last day– a day on which I had a brunch to go to and a class to teach. I think you can see where this is going?

Fortunately for me, Brandon took the time while I was teaching to do the assignment first. I would have flunked out last night if it weren’t for him. OK, let’s be honest, I would have flunked out in week 1 if it weren’t for him.

What he discovered, through much annoyance on his part and much to my relief, is that the assignment as written looked very long and complicated (15 pages of instructions!) but really consisted of editing 3 files. It took me a while to believe him and stop reading the assignment instructions, but– let it be known across the Internet (and especially among future Coursera students)– he was right! Saved me hours I did not have to spend parsing the assignment doc.

Of course, it was still difficult. Not only was I having to re-google matrix algebra repeatedly, I had never used Matlab before and had forgotten nearly everything I learned about writing code. The assignment took almost all the time I had available (even with a generous amount of help from B). Repeatedly running code and getting “inner dimensions must agree” was abundantly frustrating. I didn’t have time to take a break and recoup or calm down or be grateful for my progress– I had to get the assignment in by midnight. This is all complicated by my false and self-fulfilling belief that I am inherently bad at math and my long-running battle with a paralyzing fear of failure. By the time I submitted the assignment, I didn’t feel much relief or accomplishment– I felt I was about 11 years old, crying at the dinner table with my dad, trying to get through my algebra homework.

Obviously, we can’t have this happening every weekend for the rest of the summer. So here’s the new plan:

When I feel frustrated, I will take a break. I’ll get a glass of water, take a walk, or lay down for a bit and encourage myself. Remind myself of all the benefits of not getting something right the first time.

We aim to get the assignments done by Tuesday. They are due Sunday night, so we will have plenty of time to be kind to ourselves.

We will keep evaluating the plan so we can make it better if need be.

From this week forward, I’ll be trying to see this class as an opportunity to learn to use failure as a tool for learning (in addition to its curricular topics and Matlab benefits : )

 

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I’ll Try Really Hard Not to Drop Out of this MOOC

Is this Angelina Jolie?
No, I don’t think it is. (Photo Credit: Bart Everson via Flickr)

I’m taking a MOOC! A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course; this one is on a platform called Coursera, and it’s about machine learning. ML allows computers to learn in a meaningful way without being programmed. Google uses machine learning to improve its search results, Apple and Facebook use it for their photo recognition software, Tesla (and many others) use it in their self-driving cars, Google used it to beat the best humans at a famously complex game, and IBM’s Watson is helping people tackle cancer. Not that I intend to compete with any that, but suffice it to say, I’m interested.

There are lots of people in our “class”– last we checked, around 750 had introduced themselves on the forum! Of course, studies show that completion rates for these types of classes are low– a little below 7%. I am definitely concerned that I might be part of the 93% who drop out for whatever reason, so I’ll promise in advance to be reflective and write a post about why I quit if I in fact do. I read through some of the posts my classmates have made introducing themselves, and they truly are from everywhere– France, India, China, Rwanda, Kentucky– and have all different levels of education. I’m not the only doctoral student, and there’s at least one middle school student enrolled!

For this class, there’s some recommended content knowledge, but no formal pre-requisites. It doesn’t cost money to take the course, but if you’d like a certificate, you can pay about $50. B and I aren’t taking it for a certificate, we’re just curious!

It’s not part of my degree program, so I don’t need to take it for any kind of credit– I think the understanding of the technology and the social experience of taking an online computer science course will be useful for my research. Machine learning could be an interesting data analysis method for me. It will certainly require its designers to make interesting ethical choices, and if I get the chance to study such a design team in the future, it will be helpful for me to understand the technology they are using.

So far, the class is interesting. This week, we are learning about the algorithms that statistical programs like R use to find coefficients for univariate regressions. It’s a fun counterpart to the linear modeling class I took first term which used that kind of software. It promises to tough, and an excellent opportunity for me to practice what I’ve been learning about growth mindset and grit!
We completed our first week today. I’ve passed all my assignments and have only cried once!

More info (& crying) to come on this, I’m sure.

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First summer weekly reflection

Today I did my first reflection on my weekly schedule. As I explained last week, I am trying to continuously improve my work habits so that I am as effective as possible by the time I have a huge, independent dissertation project on my plate in a year or so.

Here’s what I observed this week:

  • I did not stick to my schedule on weekends. Although my Saturday is indistinguishable from my Monday, the same cannot be said for my friends! I want to maintain and improve my social connections, which I rarely have the opportunity to do since my move, so it’s important to me to carve out time for friends and family.
  • My starting time is manageable. My first draft of the weekly schedule included 5 hours of work per day, 7 days a week. I worked from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. I started that late so I could enjoy staying out or up late on an occasional “work night” since every night is a work night :) I found it easy to be working by 11:30, and could consider moving it up a bit if necessary.
  • I don’t need a lunch break. I had scheduled one in last week’s draft, but didn’t use it. I will get rid of it, and I will think this week about breaks. Studies show that they are important for productivity and health, so I will need to include them.
  • Ambiguous work tasks tank my productivity. I spent nearly entire work day completely wasting my time until I realized that the task on my plate was intimidating and confusing because I didn’t know what specific things to do to accomplish it best. “Work on the paper” is too vague for me.

Here’s how I addressed each observation:

  • Weekends. This one is an open question still.Each draft of my schedule includes a section for “open questions” to acknowledge and focus my attention on unsolved problems. I may not have an answer for every problem right away, and I refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this project. I had to adjust my weekend schedule anyway because I took on a class on Saturdays, so I’ll experiment with this new schedule and see whether it’s easier or harder. I have another idea to solve this waiting in the wings, but I want to change my schedule incrementally so I can get the best picture of what actually works.
  • Starting time. I decided to stick with the 11:30 starting time for another week to solidify the habit of daily work at a comfortable time, but I will consider moving it earlier for the following week. My goal for evaluating start times will finding one that supports the most productivity during the day, not starting as early as possible for earliness’ sake.
  • Breaks. I eliminated the lunch break and brought in another project that had originally been relegated to free time. I’ve added breaks to my open questions and plan to observe my needs and existing habits for breaks closely over the next week.
  • Ambiguous work. This last week, when I wasted a day I redeemed it near the end by using GTD’s project planning technique to clarify my goals, define my desired outcome, and create concrete, goal-oriented “next actions.” This cleared up my thoughts and the next day, I was back on track.

Draft 2 is on paper!

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Summer plans!

I’m trying a new thing this summer. I want to meet some specific goals in terms of each of three priority projects this summer, but I struggle to remain productive with unstructured time.

I’ve devised a plan for my work days that will support those goals and will help me build on what I learn so that when I have to, say, write a dissertation, I won’t have to figure it out from scratch.

Here’s the plan.
1. Get up to date in GTD. GTD is a productivity system laid out in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I have tweaked it slightly for my own needs and implemented in in workflowy. The system and software work really well with each other and with my mind, when I am actively using them. The end of this last semester threw me off a bit, so my first goal will be to get my list back up to date. This included narrowing down all the projects I am interested in to the ones I am planning to actively work on this summer. It also includes setting up a time for a “weekly review” so that I keep my list up to date and in line with my priorities.

2. Plan out my week. Although it’s not specifically sanctioned by GTD, in order to make sure I’m spending my time in appropriate proportions on my projects (not just on what seems most urgent or interesting that day) I’ve scheduled out work time for each of my projects during the week. I plan to work about 5 hours per day, 7 days a week.

My first draft of the plan started with a list of the projects I’d identified as important. I allocated a number of hours per week to work on each, and then drew a map of each of the seven days. Along with blocks for each project, I included regular calls, lunch, and maintenance tasks like cleaning. I also have a space for “Open Questions” on the planning page that will serve as prompts for the next step.

3. Reevaluate. On the same day as my weekly review, I have time planned to write about what I’ve learned about working when I have autonomy over my time. This will give me a time to reflect and adjust my plans if I need to.  A week will give me a chance to test out every aspect of the plan before altering it, but each new plan will be lower-pressure: it’s not My Life Plan, it’s just what I’ve committed to for the week.

The written reflections will help me learn week-to-week and help me understand the effects of each change. Hopefully, by the time this summer is over, I will have not only a solid routine established, I will also have a better understanding of how I work and what my options for a routine are so that I can apply all of that knowledge to new circumstances in the winter, next summer, and during my dissertation work.

Commit, test, reflect, adjust. That’s the plan.

I’ve got time planned in my week for blogging, so I will keep this up to date :)

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Downs and Ups

It’s finals time!

I thought I’d throw up a quick post to talk about what the end of the semester looks and feels like, rather than waiting until after I’ve recovered.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • At the end of our first year, we do a review of our progress with a committee. It went well, but compiling the materials consumed a lot of time and thought. The process and the review was a very productive exercise in thinking about my career, so it was worth it. I may to a future post about first year reviews.
  • I took an extra class this term, which I don’t recommend. It was interesting, and supposed to only be IMG_2194two credits’ worth of work, but it turned out to be a lot throughout the semester, and it added significantly to my end-of-semester workload. Today we gave our final presentations, and although the class and its content were great, it’s a relief that that’s over.
  • I bit off more than I could chew for a big final project and I’m excited about the outcome enough that I’m going to do the work instead of scaling it down, but intrinsic motivation is a double-sided coin. That’s how you end up with to-do list like this one.
  • I stayed up really late last night on accident. I wasn’t even doing anything useful, I was relaxing with Gilmore Girls!

So this morning, I had to be at school for a talk and a class. It turned out to be well-worth the short sleep– the talk was about how the idea and practice of trigger warnings have evolved, how they are used, and how they do (or don’t) function in the college classroom.

For some reason I can’t explain, I got really sad in the time between that talk and my class. I’m not used to acknowledging my feelings, so I may never get to the bottom of this one, other than that I was tired and it didn’t take much :)

I tried to take a walk, but the outside is full of people. I sent a text to my partner, but it was early on the west coast, and he was still asleep. Eventually, found a comfortable chair somewhat out of the way, made myself some tea, and meditated a bit.

It helped a lot to acknowledge how I was feeling, and that it was OK. Someone from my lab even asked if I was OK; I lied to him (Sorry!– bad socialization) but I really appreciated it. For what it’s worth, I think he– and anyone in my department– would have understood. After all, they were grad students once.

So the end of the semester is challenging, as you’d expect. But even though most of the stress is my own fault, I wouldn’t trade it. I’m excited about my occupation for the first time ever, and I am confident I can make it (also pretty rare for me :).

To conclude, I’ll share this Facebook post I made last week about this same paper (that of the big to-do list). I am very happy to stand behind it, even on this less-than-easy day.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.46.50 PM

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De-slackifying

So far, this is going quite well. I found a few things I was dreading doing and putting off because they were unclear, or complicated, or something I had minorly screwed up in the past and was afraid of.

But avoiding the task doesn’t solve any of those problems (in fact, it exacerbates the latter!) so, once I got my head clear and recovered some of my confidence yesterday, I clarified them, broke them down into next actions, and tackled them this morning.

And you know what?

I didn’t fail or die or anything! My cat even still likes me.

Now, it’s time to go grocery shopping and make a whole bunch of burritos so I don’t have to cook next week 😉

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Slacking

I keep noticing that I’m less motivated, productive, and just feeling less on top of things than I did last term. I worry that I’m slipping into old habits or I’ve lost something key and can’t get it back. What if the new environment and the excitement of a new direction in my life is what allowed me to do well, and that productivity was not a skill I developed or evidence of personal growth, but a fluke of circumstance?

Well, last night (when I was aimlessly wandering the Internet at 3 am, because that’s healthy) I stumbled across an interesting analogy.

One of the ways I’ve been slacking is that I’ve gained back about 10 pounds of the weight I lost a year ago. (This has happened slowly over the time since I moved and started grad school, but I only bought a scale recently ; )

So I am back browsing some of the supportive weightloss forums I used to be on, and last night I stumbled on this post from a user who had also gained back some weight she had lost. Reading the comments helped me realize a few things:

  1. What happened yesterday/last month/over the last year has already happened, and feeling bad about it or denying it won’t change anything.
  2. Even if my slacking off had been an awful evil moral failing, the best thing to do would not be to feel bad about it. It would be to do something different today.
  3. The narrative of “I’ve been doing poorly,” or “I am slacking off,” or (possibly worse) “I am a procrastinator” is not helping. We have a bias toward wanting to be right about the world– if we believe we are slacking, it makes sense that we’d continue to do so. Why aim that tendency against your goals?
  4. Being vulnerable with other people about your experience, even if it’s your perceived failure at something they are all working toward and succeeding at, opens you up for their support and encouragement, and may even make other people who aren’t doing as well as they’d like feel less alone.

So I have to stop telling myself stories about being a slacker or about losing my momentum, and start thinking about what I can change. I can open up to people I can trust (or… the whole Internet?) about feeling like I’m not as productive as I’d like.

And, like my supportive partner reminded me, I can build a rat park for myself so I don’t use endless Internet binges to feel better. I’ll write a future post about the idea of rat-parking and my plans, but we talked through some basics on our weekly chat date this week. One of my favorite ideas was to start writing journal entries in draft blog entries. I love journaling, but it has seemed like it might detract from “real work.” I want to write a blog, but it’s intimidating to sit down and write a full, Internet-ready post in one sitting. Well, this way, I can journal, and if I like it, I can post it. If I don’t, I can save it to read or even polish for posting later. And either way, I get the writing practice and the cathartic experience of processing my thoughts.

So, it’s in the spirit of all of these things that I offer this journal-entry-which-is-now-a-blog-post, and this revamped description of reality:

Graduate school is stressful, and I don’t always eat, work, clean, or even relax the way I want to, but if pay attention to my behavior and feelings, be compassionate with myself, and make adjustments based on that understanding and compassion (instead of shame and guilt) I can look forward to the feeling of accomplishment, confidence in myself, and guilt-free relaxing that comes when I get shit done.

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Is it a teacher’s job to motivate students?

This term I’m taking a teaching course. Before our first class, we were asked to respond to the following prompt: 

When asked what he does to motivate his players, [NFL coach Chuck Noll] famously said:

I wasn’t hired to motivate players, I was hired to
 coach motivated players.”
Reflecting on your own personal philosophy of teaching, do you believe that it is your responsibility to motivate your students?  If so, how do you do it?  If not, why not?
I am very early in my learning-about-teaching career, so I expect to look back on this with a little bit of embarrassment in the future, but here’s my perspective on this prompt at the moment. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments!

Student motivation should be the goal of all teachers, but, in my opinion, cannot be the responsibility of the teacher alone.

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is hugely effective, where extrinsic is not. It also suggests that extrinsic incentives, like pay in the working world or rewards like candy and contingent play time for children, effectively stomps out intrinsic motivation. So what contributes to intrinsic motivation? Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

My experience as a student was probably not unique, but certainly colors my experience. I was an unmotivated student until I was in my twenties, and as competent and caring as my teachers were, I doubt there was anything they could do to get me to care. I did not have much autonomy (I had to be there when school was in session and I had to learn what the requirements dictated), I didn’t feel mastery (I got mediocre grades and had a what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”) and I didn’t have a sense of purpose (I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, college was a given, but I had no specific reason to be there.) I can look back on brief glimpses in school where I felt motivated— creative writing projects and extracurricular activities—and in all of those, I had the three elements of intrinsic motivation.

NFL coaches have the advantage of working only with those who have not only opted in to the team, but have in fact worked very hard to get on the team. They chose to work hard at it; their talents, developed skills, and experience made them excel at it; and they wanted to win: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They necessarily have strong motivation if they have gotten this far, so it is reasonable to expect a coach to assume their players will be motivated. Unfortunately, most students have very little autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and haven’t for years in the curricular context. It would take a lot for a single teacher to revive the intrinsic motivation to learn, and teachers cannot give students autonomy, mastery, and purpose of their own accord.

Despite those obstacles, I keep my eye on autonomy, mastery and purpose and support them whenever I can. My teaching experience has been in a very structured class which I had no power over, so autonomy was hard to come by, but I intend to support it in the future by giving students options for projects and power over their own topic and methods. When I teach, I tie anything I can back to purpose (the ACT is boring and arbitrary and you will never use the content of this class again, but it can help you get in to the college you want so you can build a career you care about, so let’s focus on that.) The primary way I tried to help my students in this and their future classes was to work on what held me back throughout my life. I emphasize a growth mindset to support mastery. Instead of “wrong,” I think about “not yet,” and I celebrate progress to help them see that they can (and already are!) improving.

On the first day of class, I tell my students to imagine they are teaching their little cousin to do something they love— free-throws, painting, a video game— and then imagine that their cousin misses the basket or makes a mistake. Do you tell her, “wow, you are bad at this! You should probably quit trying to get better?” Of course not. We know that she’s not going to be an expert right away, and we know from experience what kind of dedicated practice it takes to improve! If you wouldn’t talk that way to your little cousin, don’t think of yourself that way either.

Although I can’t give students all the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they would need to develop intrinsic motivation, I can try to help. I find the teaching roles I’ve had so far especially suited to helping students with mastery— if they take anything away from my class, I hope it’s that they can improve, and that their skill and capacity isn’t fixed. I hope this course can give me some tools to foster as much intrinsic motivation as I can in my job.

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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