Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Outreach and Women in STEM

Yesterday I got to do public outreach-sharing my science with non-scientists-which is one of my favorite parts of my job.
I was invited to present a workshop at an All Girls STEM Workshop for a group of middle school girls. The girls' teachers had requested an event to get this group of girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. I have developed a workshop that utilizes iPads to access data from satellites that are observing the Sun and other regions of space around Earth to learn about the Sun and Space Weather, which is how the Sun affects our local Earth environment. We also used solar scopes to look at the Sun and saw a couple sunspots and a cool prominence! I was the last of several workshops that they did during the day and wrapped up with some encouragement to take math and science courses in high school.
As a part of the Association for Women in Science, I am also organizing a state-wide event for middle school girls in April that includes hands-on workshops. I'll be presenting my Sun and Space Weather workshop again there.
Women continue to be underrepresented in many STEM fields. There are many factors including conscious or unconscious bias against girls' ability to do math and science, the image of scientists portrayed in our culture, and barriers (either real or perceived) of the difficulty to be a scientist and have a family or enjoy other parts of life. Exposing girls to a variety of STEM fields and getting them excited about science is important.
Coincidentally, I also received an email yesterday with a graphic created by some women in engineering advocate that was being shared for posting on websites. Most of the data on the graphic was useful-demonstrating girls loss of self-esteem/self-confidence in their abilities in STEM fields and the effects of stereotype threat (studies have shown that if you tell a group of test-takers that a particular minority performs poorly on that test, that minority will perform worse on that test than if they were not told). However, it was titled "Girls are Smarter than Boys" and contained a picture of a young girl reading a book and a picture of a young boy holding a cigarette. I felt that this was totally missing the point. My email in response included the following:
I do not support women in science because boys are stupid, which is the sentiment portrayed by this graphic. All children should be encouraged to pursue the fields that they like. Yes, we need to support girls' self esteem, but not by denigrating boys. As the mother of two boys, I definitely would not want them to see this. If you create a new graphic, please share it with me.
Hopefully they update it with a more positive message.

Friday, March 23, 2012


I am happy to announce that my paper submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research was accepted today! This seems like a good opportunity to talk about publishing. You may (or may not) have heard the phrase "Publish or Perish." Publishing journal articles is how scientists share their results with other scientists. We do share some information through talks and posters at conferences, but journal articles are the official communications of scientific work because of the peer review process.
When a person submits an article manuscript to a journal, the journal editors send it to (usually 2) referees with knowledge in the field to read the manuscript and provide a review. The referee usually selects from several choices (there is some variation by journal, but in general): Publish as is, Could be published after minor revisions, Could be published after major revisions, Reject, and provides comments on what revisions should be made. This is an anonymous process (referees are sometimes acknowledged when the article is published) so the referee feels free to provide an honest critique of the work without fear of ramification from a poor review or without the ability to benefit from a positive one. I have found that the review process generally makes papers much better. There is currently legislation in the works to mandate any government funded research be made publicly available for free, with quite a bit of controversy. There are costs to the publishing process, most of which is paid for through subscriptions to journals (often paid for by university libraries). However, there has been some testing of "open access" where the author pays the publishing costs (much greater than the current page charges of anywhere around $500-$1500 that authors pay per article), currently done by the choice of the author.
 In a journal article, the author(s) cite any relevant previous work that has been done. When a person publishes an article, it is available for the scientific community to read and cite their work. Generally in academia, a research career depends on publications, usually the quality of the journal is taken into account; and the number of citations a person's publications receives is important because it indicates that the work is relevant to the field.
As a research professor, my job is to obtain research funding (through writing proposals-will have to write another blog post on that in the future) and publish my research results. I am currently trying to increase the amount of publications I write as I have been somewhat slow in that area (published one article in 2011). Looking back, I think conference travel may have kept me busy, so I am reducing the number of meetings that I am traveling to this year to focus on writing and publishing. Proposal writing also has taken a big chunk of my time, but I recently had a proposal funded, so I can take a bit of a break from that for now.
In addition to my job requirements, I'm on the science team of a NASA satellite-based mission. Every few years, NASA reviews the current missions, and chooses which ones will receive a piece of the (limited) funding for extended missions. Demonstrating the benefits of a mission is done primarily through publications, so that is another reason to push my publication rates.
I am already working on another article. This one has actually been in the works for about a year, but was put aside while I worked on the one accepted today, because that was submitted as part of a special section of the journal that had a deadline. I hope to get this one submitted soon and help my graduate student write his first first-author paper as well.
So, I should probably explain what I mean by "first-author." Many papers have a list of co-authors, all who contributed some to the research discussed in the paper. (Ethics guidelines say that all co-authors are responsible for verifying the authenticity of anything published with their name on it.) The first author is the person that contributed the most, and generally wrote the bulk of the paper as well. Journals that use name citations in the text [First author et al, 2012] as opposed to numbered citations, really help get a person's name recognized in the community. So first-authored papers are a big milestone for students!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How did I get here?

I often start my story about how I ended up in my current job with the caveat that my path is not typical. But I hear that a lot, so maybe everybody's path is atypical! It took me awhile to figure out what I really wanted to do, but looking back on my childhood, I can recall enjoying math and science (though there were other things I enjoyed as well).
All the way back to preschool/kindergarten, I went to a Montessori school and I remember playing with one of my favorite "works" (as they're called in Montessori) called The Golden Beads. (Now, I don't remember that name from way back, I am blessed to have a Montessori school here that my child attends, and I got to rediscover all of the Montessori works!) The Golden Beads consist of single beads that are the ones, a bar of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads, and a cube of 1000 beads. It is a very sensory-based way to learn and understand our base-10 number system. This is an example of why Montessori education is so awesome: you learn everything through sensory activities! When I visited the school here, I saw two related works, the binomial and trinomial squares that help to visualize several math concepts. I had totally forgotten about them, but it was like having flashbacks when I saw them! If you've ever seen the TV series, Alias with Jennifer Garner, you'll understand when my husband and I joked that my Montessori education was like the spy school.
Throughout elementary school, I remember doing cool science stuff, including rat mazes and shark dissection and a summer science "camp." In high school, I was selected for an accelerated math program, taking pre-calculus during the summer, AP Calculus in junior year, and Multivariable Calculus in senior year. I had an AWESOME teacher, Mrs. Irwin. One favorite memory of her class was when she brought in Pringles to teach us about saddle points! I knew then that I wanted to major in math, and I was thinking that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I got the chance to help in a vet clinic and almost passed out during a very bloody spaying surgery. I'm not sure if that totally killed my interest in being a vet, but that was definitely a factor. I took physics as a senior in high school, which I enjoyed somewhat, but the teacher was definitely not as enthusiastic. She kept saying "you all are so much smarter than me," which was not a good thing to say to a bunch of high school students!
So my great math experience inspired me to major in math at college. I had a number of great professors and I did an Honors project in mathematics. I also minored in music, playing the cello. While I loved taking math classes, I didn't really know what to DO with math. I was really interested in astronomy and space physics (the Mars Rovers were a big deal!) so I started trying to take as many physics classes as I could fit into my schedule. During the summer after my junior year, I did a Research Experience for Undergraduates in Solar Physics in Tucson (where I had spent a good amount of my childhood so I was excited to go back). There was a big learning curve-I had to learn UNIX, C, and IDL along with some solar physics to be able to do a research project in just a couple of months. But it was great. I hung out with all of the other REUs, mostly doing astronomy. We did some observing on Kitt Peak and visited the National Solar Observatory, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and Very Large Array in New Mexico.
I applied to several astronomy graduate programs, and was accepted to UVA. But then I decided to get married, my husband to be was 2 years ahead of me and already in medical school. UVA said they would keep my application supporting documents for 2 years, so I could easily reapply. Since I needed to catch up on physics courses anyway, I figured I'd take some physics courses and then we would move to UVA together. I was accepted into the physics graduate program where my husband was, eventually joined a research group in plasma physics, and what was my first research project? Space physics! (using the IDL that I had learned during my REU!) So we never went to UVA, we stuck around. I did my dissertation work in laboratory plasma physics.
My husband finished his residency 1 year before I finished my PhD, so he got a job in the area-that included a 3 year requirement to stay in the area. Plus, I wanted to start a family when I finished. Luckily, my phd adviser had funding for a half-time postdoc doing space physics, so that's what I did. Eventually, I wrote a proposal that was funded, providing me a promotion to a research professor. And that's where I am!

Since this blog is about my work and the other parts of my life, I'll throw in some tidbits about non-work here too. Today my second kid is the age that my first kid was when the second was born. They grow up so fast!
For dinner, it's been so nice we decided to use the grill. We had tuna steaks and they were yummy! We'll have to do that again. And last night we had some strawberries, cut up, lightly sugared, on top of vanilla ice cream. Such a simple dessert, but one of my favorites.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


My brother said I should write a blog about what I do at my job. I am a Research Assistant Professor in the field of plasma physics, currently focused primarily on magnetospheric physics. What? Well, maybe I can use this blog to help explain some of that, plus what it's like to be a scientist. I'm also a mom of two boys, currently 5 and 2 1/2. I hope to also write about the joys and challenges of doing all this! I had originally planned to call this blog "Physics Mom," but that was already taken (both physicsmom and physics-mom) so I know I'm not alone!