Sunday, September 2, 2012

It's good to be home, and teaching!

I'm here!  We moved about a month ago, and the kids started daycare/school, and I started teaching.  It really feels like home here.  Since I'm from these parts, the small critters and plants that live here look normal, the crickets at night and the birds chirping in the morning sound normal, the weather is normal, the smells in the air are normal, the tap water tastes normal, and the people act normal most of the time.  Where we were, everything was different--sometimes for the better, but it just didn't feel like home.  It probably didn't help that I knew I wasn't likely to stay for too long.  Now I hope I'll be able to stay exactly here, in this house, in this department, until I retire or become emeritus.

The kids don't really remember where they were born, so from there perspective the weather is not normal here and they have noticed that.  But it doesn't seem to bother them, and they are making new friends in their classrooms and on our street.  We didn't know any kids near where we were living before, but now there are tons of them, and frequently they are out playing or biking on the sidewalks.

I have a large class of seniors in a class that's relatively unrelated to the other classes in our discipline.  That makes me feel better about my teaching because at least I don't have to prepare them for the next class in a sequence.  I'm a bit unsure of what I'm doing, but it seems to be going well so far.  Also, I hired someone already and have some collaborations getting started!  I am not sure how to decide what the people in my group will be doing, or how I'll get time to figure that out while I'm teaching, but anyway being a professor is amazing!  It's going to be even better in a few years when I have at least some vague idea of how to do all the things I'm supposed to be doing :)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Scientific advice from Grandpa

I had the occasion to ask several people for advice last week, and it made me think about how much insight and depth of understanding people gain over time (assuming they are thoughtful/intelligent people).

First I got some science advice from my Grandpa; I was up very late thinking about some equations that have been bothering me recently. (Long story short; I think some people in the literature have been calculating something in a less than optimal way and then explaining themselves incorrectly--but the heart of the issue is not really in my field so I've been reading a lot and wondering if I'm just crazy.) So I wrote an email to Grandpa in the middle of the night explaining my troubles (not the equations themselves, but the big picture and the fact that I'm not sure if I should be working on something outside of my field). He was a scientist in a related field to mine, but in industry. It was really helpful to read his reply. First he made an insightful comment about the system I am working on, then he talked a bit about how it's good for you to think about things outside of your field, but you also have a greater chance of making progress in your own field.

Later in the week, I got advice about an (unrelated) engineering issue that came up with a project that TE and I are working on recently. I asked two people, both scientists/engineers in the same field (not my field). One of them is at my career stage and the other is late-midcareer. The question was really too general for a research scientist, and the first one sort of punted (or perhaps didn't want to answer), saying that it would depend on the (unknown) specific parameters, etc. So I wasn't expecting a lot of helpful advice from the more distinguished scientist, but I thought it would be an interesting conversation so I went ahead. She took the lack of specific information as a challenge. She gave me an amazingly specific overview of what the parameters probably are for our situation, then she gave me her best guess on what to do next for the greatest chance of success. She also went into detail about the underlying science without going over my head. From my point of view, it sounded like she knew everything--and was able to extemporaneously go up or down a level of detail in discussion.

It must be nice to have a huge pool of background knowledge and experience all accessible off the top of your head. I mean, the younger scientist that I asked probably knew most of the specific things she said, but it wasn't connected together for him, or at least the coherent description of it all wasn't available in his head at a moment's notice. Of course, it's easy for me to understand that more experienced people know more things, especially further from the narrow field they're currently in. But it gets me every time how some of them can just pull on that knowledge so quickly to understand a problem and narrow in on what is important about it. I am looking forward to that time in my career (if I ever get there)!

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Ever since I got sick last year I've been reading a lot of medical literature. It was not particularly helpful before I was diagnosed because there was so much to go through that I couldn't figure out what I had. But even when it wasn't helpful it was comforting/empowering to do something. As an aside, I think is one of the best arguments for more free public access of the medical literature, which holds even if we can't assume that the general public will understand much of the literature. Since I've been mostly better, a few things just didn't add up (I think the diagnosis I got was the most accurate one, but some side things didn't make sense) and I still perused the literature occasionally. Of course, after diagnosis I could be more targeted and start to understand some things in this smaller section of literature. A couple of months ago, after talking with a family member who has Celiac, I was looking at the literature again and I saw some evidence that, if I had Celiac, would explain several of the loose ends.

So, even though I've been feeling almost completely normal recently, I tried going gluten-free. At the same time I made an appointment with a doctor, but it wasn't for a couple of weeks. After just a few days I started to think I might feel a bit better, and then in a week or so it was clear. I got the doctor to do a blood test, even though I hadn't been eating gluten that week. I knew it would make the test less accurate but I figured if I tested positive it would be a win-win and I wouldn't have to go back on gluten to get tested. But I tested negative, and my new rheumatologist (I had to switch rheumatologists for reasons that are not relevant to the current discussion) doesn't want to do further tests. So I have a double blind test going on right now (a friend made samples of various flours for me and sealed the key to which was which, and my husband has been adding one of them to my food once a week), which is recommended in the literature. It's possible I have a problem with wheat that is not Celiac (there is increasing agreement in the literature that people can have gluten intolerance that is not Celiac, and of course there are wheat allergies), but I'm pretty darn sure there is a problem, and hopefully I can be more sure after this test.

But whatever I have, initially I was elated to be feeling so great. Now I am just relieved and extremely grateful. My baseline idea of what being healthy was like was slightly off, meaning that now I feel even better than was typical for the rest of my entire adult life (although back more than 5 or 6 years ago the memory is fuzzier and it's hard to really compare). I can concentrate better too, although that's perhaps simply related to the fact that I'm not hungry all the time. It's sort of sad that I didn't figure this out earlier, but mostly I'm just glad I know now. It doesn't seem like a big deal on a day to day basis (I wasn't feeling that bad before), but in the long run I think this might be really life-changing. Maybe it's presumptuous of me to think that I understand the underlying meaning of the following lyrics, or that I know how I'll feel in the long term about my newfound good health, but I'm gonna go ahead and say that this represents my feelings including my inner celebration of this change:
It's "not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah".