Aspirations to be an Astronaut: TAMEST Conference Brings Back Memories

This year I have the privilege to be Dr. Fred Cheng (National Academy of Engineering) protege  at the The Academy of Medicine Engineering Science and Technology of Texas (TAMEST) conference. To be an inducted member of TAMEST, one must be a Nobel Prize member, member of the National Academy, or a member of the Royal Society and resident of Texas.  All members of TAMEST can designate a protege as a guest at their annual meetings.  Coincidently this year my husband, Steve, was the protege of David Meltzer (National Academy of Sciences).   The opening reception was held at the Houston Space Flight Visitor Center.  Together we got to explore the center’s various exhibits.

The event brought back memories of high school when I had grand plans of joining either the Air Force or Navy’s ROTC program and becoming a space flight control officer — as stepping stone to becoming an astronaut.  When career day came at my school, and we had to pair up with a professional in the field for a day to see what our dream jobs were really like, my school guidance counselor decided that the best match would not be an engineer or scientist — but the Navy recruiter who regularly visited our school.  Boy, I can tell you that had little to do with the job I had envisioned — because I really wasn’t interested in sales (the real job of a military recruiter) and this guy really didn’t get me.

The day I spent with the Navy recruiter we visited numerous high schools and talked to a bunch of kids and occasionally their parents.  Some of the students were already signed up and ready to go to boot camp, others were just thinking about signing up or just trying to get out of class for an hour.  However, the one vivid memory I have of that day that still haunts me happened at this one school where we didn’t have any visitors. The recruiter handed me this article to which he thought I would really relate. It was written by a navy wife.  She wrote about how she learned to “live with” the toilet paper having to be placed on the roll a certain way so she could no longer fold the edges under and other “regulations” that she had learned to live with it.

This seemed so ridiculous to me.  I felt absolutely insulted.  Did this guy really think I wanted to sit home all day and worry about cleaning bathrooms and folding the corners of toilet paper?  I had taken a day away from classes, extracurriculars (gymnastics practice) and my social life to learn about a future career in science and technology and this guy thought my concerns were domestic life — which I had pretty much mastered being the oldest of four kids with working parent living in rural America!

That day I learned nothing about a career in science.  It seemed to me like a complete waste of time.  But in retrospect — although I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of the concept at the time, I probably had my first glimpse of gender bias.  The recruiter thought that because I was a women, the “regulations” that a military life required would somehow upset and bother me in a way that it didn’t upset or bother men.  However, all the article really did was insult me.

In the end, I decided to not join  any ROTC program — I was afraid to commit that many years of my life without any guarantees I would end up with a choice of a career path.  So, I just went to college with no clue of what to even major in.   When I came out of college over a decade later,  I had a BS in Applied Math and Physics, an MA in Physics, and a Ph.D. in Physics and I now work as an Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  I never did become an astronaut, but I have done a lot of very cool science.

Representation at Conferences

Last night I went to dinner with a few women faculty and one of my young male graduate students who were attending the TAUP2017 conference with me in Sudbury, Canada. I made the comment to my student that he is sort of getting a glimpse of my professional life as a women physicist. However, instead of me being the only women at a table of old white men, he was the only young man at a table of old white women. To which one of my colleagues pointed out she was not old — I pointed out that compared to my graduate student she was.

This morning, the third day of the conference I was listening to one of my colleagues talk about the current status of long baseline neutrino experiments and I found my mind wondering to the dinner conversation the night before. I then realized that up to this point, I had seen only ONE female plenary physics speaker and we were on day 3 of the conference! I quickly thumbed through my program and did a quick calculation. By my count only 16% of plenary speakers at the major conference in my field would be women.

At the coffee break I pointed this out to a few colleagues. It didn’t seem to really phase them and they seemed to brush it off. I’m not naive, I know finding qualified women can be hard. There are only so many and they can bee oversubscribed, but lets look at some numbers in my field.

If I looked at the numbers, the most recent survey of women faculty I can find comes from AIP in 2010 where 14% of physics department faculty are reported as being women <>. However, I hope that by 2017 we are doing better than that.

So, maybe it is better to do take a look of the breakdown at this conference. Doing a rough analysis of the percent of women at the conference based on the names of the first authors on submissions for posters and presentations, it appears the attendees at the conference are composed of 25% women. So, it seems to me, aiming to have 25% women represented in the plenary session as presenters and as session chairs would be a good goal to set.

When these goals can not be met, I think a good strategy is to arrange the agenda in such a way that early on in the conference the under represented group doesn’t appear to be quite so under represented.

Turkenfunken 2012 Feast

Tomorrow begins an epic day of cooking. Each year I take up the challenge to cook an entire meal from scratch. This might not sound like much – but consider that I bake all the desserts and the dinner rolls while simultaneously smoking a turkey on our charcoal grill. I do use canned pumpkin, but the pie crusts, apples, cranberries, veggies, etc. are fresh. Below I outline my game plan for tomorow (Thanksgiving Day, or as we call it at the Cooley-Sekula house, Turkenfunken),

Soak the hickory chips for the smoker.

First thing started will be the pumpkin cheesecake with praline topping. It needs to set for 8 hours before serving. I opted for cheesecake this year rather than pie. I am not a of pumpkin pie and every other year I opt for an alternate pumpkin .

Start the charcoal.

Next I will start the dinner rolls, bringing them to the point of their first rise.. This year I am trying a variation on my potato roll recipe. It will contain both whole wheat flour and sweet potato. We’ll see how that goes.

While the dough is rising I will work on the pies. I haven’t decided which will go first — pecan or apple. The apple will talent more work – I need to reduce the cider glaze, peel the apples and make a double crust. Maybe I will start there.

At this point the dough for the rolls will likely be ready. If that is the case I will finish the rolls, else I will make the bread crumbs for the dressing.

Lunch break and time to break out the chef’s wine glass (and of course fill it).

Next up – the awesome cranberry sauce. It will be made on the stovetop and then moved to the fridge.

While everything is baking there will be time to peel the carrots and trim the Brussel sprouts. This year I got new potatoes – so, they will not need peeling.

Once the turkey finishes, the mashed potato casserole and Brussel sprouts will go into the oven. I will finish the glazed carrots on the stove and also make the gravy.

Finally, I will stir the pecans into the cranberry sauce.

Hopefully my helpers have pressed the linen and set the table by this point, because I will start bringing out the food. God willing it will be dinner time and all crises will have been averted.

Most importantly, I will have conquered that once a year fest known as Turkenfunken once again. Next crisis – Christmas cookies ( I will crush you!)

Travel Woes and Crazy People

Yesterday I flew to Newark, NJ as I was to give a seminar at Rutgers.  Through a conspiracy of airline ticket prices, I was compelled to take a one-stop flight.  So, at 6:35 am I boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Miami, FL.  Several hours later I found the plane I was on had landed in Tampa Bay, FL.  The Miami airport had closed due to thunderstorms while we were in flight.  We flew around the airport for 30 or 45 minutes in what as know as a ‘holding pattern’.  At that time, the pilot announced that we would need to fly to Tampa for some fuel as we were running out.  Once we got to Tampa, it took quite some time before we could get a fueling truck.  Apparently, we were not the only plane that was running low on fuel.  Once we had more fuel, we had to sit a bit longer as we were grounded, due to the Miami airport still being closed.  Eventually, the weather cleared and we landed in Miami at 1:30 pm, only 3 hours behind schedule.

Fortunately, my connecting flight also suffered from substantial delays.  In addition to the weather, we had some problem getting ‘security clearance’ for the plane.  Something needed before passengers could board.  Finally at 4 pm we were on our way.  I had been feeling a little better as I had been upgraded to 1st class.  So, I knew I would be fed a hot meal, beverages of my choice and have a large seat and I would be treated well.

Until I got on the plane, seat 5A and found that the gentleman in seat 5B was a crazy person with a skin condition.  I generally have no prejudice against crazy people or skin problems, but this was excessive.  See he believes that the world will end in 2012 because that is when the Mayan calendar ends.  He also believes that the Mayan’s were aliens who arrived on space ships.  His evidence is the pyramids and ‘those rock on that island’.  In addition, he contends that the bible tells us that spaceships will bring us to heaven on Dec. 31, 2012.  See, clouds is code word for spaceship.  That’s what happened to Jesus.  He was brought to heaven on a space ship.

After about 20 minutes or so, we had risen above 10,000 feet and were allowed to use ‘safe and approved electronic devices’.  So, I excused myself as politely as I could stating that I was listening to Dune and was at a really interesting point.  During the flight this man interrupted my book several times to show me things, including the advertisement he tore from American Way on some sort of Roswell festival and a picture of a blue fin tuna. 

The thing that really made this over the top was his skin condition.  He had some special lotion (very smelly) in a container that he applied to his arms and face several times during the flight.  I know that dry skin can be very painful, so I felt it was no big deal until he put some on his hand and then stuck his hand down the front of his shirt and started rubbing it on his chest.

Traveling first class never felt so good. 🙂

What have you done this past decade?

Yesterday on our way home from the airport, Steve pointed out to me that we were at a milestone, the end of a decade.  I found myself reflecting upon the thing that happened in my life this past decade that were important to me in some way.

In the past 10 years, I have traveled to five of the seven continents on the earth.  I have earned a Ph.D. in physics,  did postdoc studies at MIT and Stanford University, and finally became a Professor of Physics at SMU this past year.  I have lived in four different cities spanning each coast of these United States.

I became married.  I have watched my family expand as my siblings married and had children.  I became a godmother to three of my four nieces and nephews.

I completed the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee, WI.

Not all things that have happened this past decade were cause for celebration.  I have seen friends and loved ones struggle with relationships.  Some loved ones have passed away.

As I think ahead to the next decade, I find myself wondering where I will be in the next 10 years.  Will I get tenure (think job security for Professors) or will I need to start an entirely new chapter in my career?  Will I have children?  Will I have visited every continent on the earth?  Will I ever make it to a high school class reunion?  Will I ever be a home owner? 

Nobel Prize Winners: Women in Science

During my commute last week I listened to an episode of the Diane Rehm show (NPR) “11:00 Nobel Prize Winners:  Women in Science” (episode linked here:  I am pleased that this topic is being discussed on a national show.

The enevitable topic that is always brought up in discussions of women and minorities in the sciences is the concept of a leaky pipeline.  For those unfamilar, the analogy is that there is one path to success in the sciences, this is the pipeline.  Although we get women and minorities into the pipe early on (high school and undergrad), we loose them at various stages (graduation from undergrad, graduate school, postdoctoral, etc), this is the leak. 

Everyone focuses on fixing “the leak”.  I think we need to get rid of the pipe and replace it with a highway with “on ramps”.  We need to realize, as one of Diane’s guest points out, that a “one size fits all” approach to success does not and can not work if we want to diversify the scientific community.

What Team Do You Support?

On Tuesday Steve and I attended the Turner Construction Student Forum Q&A session.  The forum brings leading voices and mines from around the world to the SMU campus to speak to students.  This past Tuesday’s guest were author and foreign affairs reporter Thomas Friedman (‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ and ‘The World is Flat), Fareed Zakaria editor of Newsweek International and host of CNN’s ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’, and David Gergen commentator, editor, teacher and presidential advisor to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. 

During the Q&A a high school student asked Fareed about his political stance as a moderate.  Fareed answered that for him it was not about what team he supported, but what is the best solution to the problem. He further commented about how politics now-a-days seemed more about supporting your team, rather than seeking the best solution.

This got me thinking about my own political affiliation and primary elections.  I think the way primary elections are held in our country feeds into the ‘support the team’ mentality.  In my life this is illustrated by my own party affiliation. Up until the point I moved to CA five years ago, I always registered as an independent.  I felt no party really lined up with my view and I did not want to be affiliated with any of them.  As an independent, I was not allowed to vote in the primary elections in the states I resided.  So, when I moved to CA, I decided that the best I could do is to pick a party and work to get the nomination for the candidate within the party that I liked best.

This to me seems like supporting a team, rather than picking the best solution.  What if some year I decide I like what a republican candidate in the primaries best.  The only way I can support that candidate is to register in a different party, which is a hassle.

I much more prefer the open primary system.  I don’t think I should have to be restricted in my support of a candidate early in the process by party lines.

Hanging Out at CERN

Today I end my European tour with a seminar at CERN.  It turns out that Stephen Weinberg was scheduled to speak at the same time as I.  Although I was scheduled first, Stephen’s rock star status trumped me and my talk was moved 2 hours earlier.  The official count for my seminar was 42.  Not bad considering the competion.

The fortunate part of being “bumped” was that my host made sure I was well taken care of.  I had a reserved front row seat for Weinberg’s seminar and I got to attend the VIP lunch where I met Weinberg, the director of CERN and the spokespersons and heads of several of the groups working here. 

My talk seemed to be received quite well and I had several questions afterwards.  Notable attendees for my talk included Nobel prize winner Jack Steinberger and Rocky Kolb, author of “The Early Universe”. 

Thoughts on DAMA/LIBRA

I’ve been attending the TAUP 2009 conference (Topics in Astroparticle and Underground Physics) in Rome this past week.  Yesterday, the DAMA/LIBRA collaboration presented their results on an observation of a seasonal variation of events in their detector.  They interpret this as dark matter.  There is good reason to believe that dark matter rates through the earth vary over the course of the year.  Sometimes the earth is moving “with the wind” from our dark matter halo and sometimes we are moving “against the wind”.  When we are with the wind, fewer dark matter particles travel through us, when we are against more dark matter particles travel through us.  The controversy is that no other dark matter detector has verified this discovery.  As a matter of fact, using convential hypotheses of how dark matter particles behaves, several experiments independently have “ruled out” their discovery.  This leads to one of two conclusions, either DAMA/LIBRA is observing some unaccounted for background that also varies by season or the dark matter interacts in a way that is not expected.

I always walk away with a few questions. 

1.  Is DAMA a poorly designed experiment?   By this what I mean is without independent confirmation, will anyone ever believe that they have found dark matter.  I think not.  However, the same question would be asked of any experiment that claimed a discovery of dark matter.

2.  What do we learn by continuing to run the experiment in the same mode, same location?
    – Wouldn’t it be better if we could learn more details about the interactions of these events.  For example, it would be great if DAMA/LIBRA could do a pulse-shape analysis that would tell us if the events are interacting with the atom’s nucleus or the electrons surrounding the nucleus.  However, I have been told by DAMA collaborators that they have no discrimination power between these types of interactions in there pulses.
   –  What if the experiment were moved to the southern hemisphere?  If the modulation were observed out of phase, this would certianly point to a seasonal effect.  Dark matter particles don’t care which hemisphere your experiment is in.  This question was asked at the conference.  The speaker responded that there were not plans to move the experiment.  It was too much work.  True enough, it does take years to build and commission these experiments. 

In the end, it leaves me asking:  exactly what is it that we are learning by continuing to run DAMA/LIBRA int he same location, without changing anything?  They already have an 8.2 sigma result – certianly enough to claim discovery.  No one doubts that they are seeing a modulation.  The question is a modulation of what.  In order to answer that, I think it is time for a new approach.

The Politics of Fear

This week I am on shift at our detector site in Soudan, MN.  One tradition I have is to have my weekend breakfast at the Tower Cafe in Tower, MN.  Tower itself is not a remarkable town.  Its population is around 500 people.  The cafe serves locals very simple, traditional breakfast fare.  It’s the kind of place where the sheriff come in, grabs his coffee cup off the wall and sits down to join in on the conversation.

When I was there today there was a group of 3 men at the far table and myself who took a table by the window.  The gentlemen were discussing politics.  After I sat down and the waiter took my order, the gentlemen and waiter began talking about ‘Gitmo’ and President Obama’s plans to close it down.  Born and raised in a small town in rural Wisconsin myself, I always find these conversations facinating.  They bring me back to my roots and give me insight into how my views have changed over time.

The gentlemen at the back of the table stated that Mr. Obama’s plan to close down Guantanamo were largely symbolic.  They expressed concern that these prisoners would be transfered to the fedral prison system and that we would need to build more prisons to house them.  One stated that we seem to forget that these people took down two towers.  They also seemed to be in favor of classifying these prisoners as prisoners of war, which frankly surprised me.  It shows that they at least realize to some extent the difficulty these prisoner cause the US.

Those who know me well, realize that I desperately bit my tonge during this conversation.  I wanted to point out to them that these people were not the ones who attacked our nation on September 11th, that we know nothing of these people because they are not afforded due process.  Many of these people are our fellow citizens, who should have the rights afforded to them under our constitution.  Furthermore, I believe that these people, if not enemies on the way in will certianly be enemies on the way out. 

So, it seems the politics of fear still reverberates through our population.