Adventures in Assistant Professoring

Science, general geekery, and random thoughts.

Well. That happened.

All right then. Deep breath, everyone. We’re still here.  Let me tell you a story.

I was a nerdy kid (shocking, I know). I went to a very small public school in deep backwoods Mississippi. I was painfully, excruciatingly shy. I liked books and weird tv shows. Boys didn’t ask me to ‘go with’ them. I was excluded, I was talked about, I was laughed at. One person who claimed to be a friend started some truly nasty rumors about me that followed me for years. It was a life of cliques, and I was only welcome on the periphery. It may not have been intentional, but it was most definitely the way I felt as a kid.

I see the same thing happening now.

The bullies and rumor-starters of my day are the Trump Republicans now. They embellish any story they tell to be the most grandiose, most vile reporting of ‘facts’ about anyone who has any differing opinion. They are bombastic, screeching, angry, hatemongerers. They truly do not care about other points of view, and are overjoyed when they can offend someone.

The whispering, snobby, elitist jerks are the Clinton Democrats now. They are so self-centered in their smug ‘rightness’ that they don’t stop to think about how far they’ve pushed the bullies, and how mad the bullies have become. They don’t think about the opinions of others because OBVIOUSLY their own opinions are the most right, and the most true, and everyone should just conform to their way of seeing things. They speak words of non-violence, not deigning to dirty their hands with action. They are condescending, and entitled, because they simply know better than everyone else.

Where does that leave me?

I could not vote for Trump. He is a vile, disgusting, pig of a human who has spoken some of the most hateful statements ever made toward women and minorities. He has been a 1%er for his entire life, never having done a single day’s manual labor. Yet he built his entire campaign on the backs of those strong men and women who support our country with honest hard work. He’s the loudest voice in the crowd, and he’s yelling things they want to hear. They ignore his moments of lewd, potentially criminal, behavior because he’s the one who is pushing back against everything they have been conditioned to hate.

I could not vote for Clinton. She is a scheming, sneaking, back-room dealing career politician who has stated her firm support for ending entire sectors of American jobs such as coal mining. She is no friend to the blue-collar worker. Her rallies included support from well-known musicians and actors, and the majority of the entertainment industry has been vocal in their support for her. Lovely people, yes… but they do not represent the majority of people in America. Hillary ignored the steelworker, the nurse, the refinery worker, the farmer, and the grade-school teacher, and they are tired of being ignored.

So, I voted for a third-party candidate.

It became overwhelmingly, abundantly clear to me in July that Trump was likely to carry the electoral vote for the state I currently live in, and the Clinton campaign essentially conceded it to him. So, I felt the need to vote where my conscience led me. I investigated, I researched, I read review after review and listened to countless interviews. I looked at how candidates handled previous public service jobs. I looked at and read everything I could think of. Knowing all of these things, I voted for a third-party candidate.

You may say “Well you just wasted your vote. How could you do that in such an important election?”

To you I say “My vote isn’t wasted if my conscience is clear.”

I voted third-party because it is time we had more choice in elections. I voted third-party because neither the Republican or Democrat platforms are agreeable to me. I voted third-party because the candidate I chose to support isn’t being investigated or sued, hasn’t bankrupted a company, and hasn’t been convicted of any criminal acts. I voted third-party because that candidate has a belief system that is in alignment with my own Christian principles. Most importantly, I voted third-party because after all my research, I believed my candidate to be the best choice for leadership of this nation.

Did my candidate win? NO. Did they stand a chance? NO. But that’s ok. We have to start somewhere.

That’s how a revolution begins.


One Year And Counting

In August of this year, I had my one year anniversary as a tenure-track assistant professor. I was so busy, I didn’t realize it until September. What have I accomplished in the last year?

I’ve taken on a M.S. student and seen her through completion of a project. (In 8 months… that was insane, but we did it!)

I’ve been awarded internal funds for an undergraduate project, and am working with an undergraduate who has literally zero experience in our field.

I’ve attended 5 conferences, and spoken at each of them.

I’ve published one conference paper, and have two papers that will be out soon.

I’ve written for and been awarded one large ARS project and two smaller FPL projects.

I wrote an NSF proposal that got rejected, but had excellent information from the reviewers.

I’ve participated in two outreach week-long programs in my department, each of which has seen participation from over 3000 middle-school students from around the state.

I’ve taken over the lab space of a retired faculty member and haven’t managed to ruin it.

I’ve taught one split-level course and one undergraduate course, and will be co-teaching a graduate level course in the spring.

Senior faculty seem to feel comfortable discussing projects and collaborations with me, and have invited me to sit in on meetings for their projects.

I’ve had the chance to develop relationships with multiple industry partners, several of whom have expressed interest in contracting my lab to carry out short-term projects for their businesses.

I’ve got one PhD student working now, one on the way in January, and a third that I’ll co-advise starting later in the spring. If I can get one M.S. student lined up, I’ll be set for the next three years.

Woah. I said all of that to say this. I’ve never been happier in my life. I love what I do more than anything I’ve ever done. I adore my department, the administration, senior faculty, students, and staff. I feel very looked-after and also independent, at the same time. I’m busy from the moment I wake up until I get home at night, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This year has allowed me to separate from some negative influences that had held on from my postdoctoral days, and has allowed me to build some new, positive, supportive relationships. I am excited about where my department is headed, and I hope in 20 years that I’m still here and still this happy.

The Offended Generation: Getting Mad At History

The thing about pendulums is this… eventually, they hit an extreme on each opposing side.

I read the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly.  I enjoy the articles and the insight I receive into other parts of my world, the realm of post-secondary education. I think the Chronicle does a reasonable job of presenting fair assessments of some very difficult topics that are being worked through on college campuses around the world. I think they’ve done an admirable job of covering the racial issues at the University of Missouri, the gun control issue on university campuses, and the roles of women in academia, among other topics. Their writers present as much information as they possibly can, and information is what this sector of the world relies upon. In academia, facts are acceptable currency.

Today, however, I feel unsettled. A short article entitled “3 Colleges Wrestle With Iconic Leaders’ Racial Legacies” reports information and incidences from Princeton, Amherst, and William & Mary. These issues arose when someone, a student or faculty member, found something objectionable about one of each college’s most well-known historical figures. At each college, there have been protests and changes based on this objectionable information.  To be fair, I agree that there are facts about each of the described public figures that are reprehensible and off-putting. Would I personally be pals with any of them or support them politically? Eh, not likely.

But it is all in the PAST.

I don’t mean that it happened in our parents’ generation, or our grandparents’ generation. The most recent of these  offenses happened in the previous century, between 1902 and 1921, when Woodrow Wilson served as president of Princeton University, and later as president of the United States. For my math friends, that’s 94 to 113 years ago. (Let’s agree to call it approximately 100 years, ok? Thanks.) 100 YEARS, people. And that is the most recent of the offenses described in the Chronicle article.

How did someone from a century ago manage to infuriate people today?

100 years ago, our country was on the brink of World War I, women had not yet achieved the right to vote, and Alexander Graham Bell had just made the first long-distance telephone call. NASA did not exist. Typhoid Mary had just been identified. Air travel was a novelty. Silent films played in theaters. The Ottoman Empire was still in existence. The first stop sign was created.

And today, in 2015, people are offended by opinions held by someone of that time period. Offended to the point of desiring that this person’s name be stricken from buildings, endowments, honors, and colleges. People “feel marginalized” when they pass by buildings bearing the name of this person. Let’s examine that term, for a moment.

Marginalize: verb (used with object). To place in a position of marginal importance, influence, or power. To treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral.

So, people who pass by a building bearing the name of a long-deceased public figure, who championed the right of women to vote, who advocated for democracy and peace around the world, who was instrumental in forming the League of Nations, predecessor to our U.N., who supported our nation’s farmers and laborers… this person, who wrote numerous books and essays on the rights of humans to be free and at peace… his name on a building makes you feel unimportant because he was not as perceptive about equality between all races of people as you are, 100 years later?

Get over yourself.

The opinions of people from a century ago, before our grandparents were born, can have no hold on us, with our broadened understanding of humanity as a societal whole. Contemporary public outcry at being offended, injured, marginalized, and discriminated against has exploded in recent years to epidemic proportions. Yes, we should absolutely be fighting against those portions of society who seek to hold any group of individuals as more deserving than another group. Yes, we should be outraged at the physical harm caused when one individual interprets physical appearance as a reason for violence. Yes, we should strive to improve the moral, financial, and societal situation of all human beings, regardless of characteristics associated with any group of individuals. We should all work to be better than we are, and to make the world better for those around us. But our pendulum has swung too far, friends. We are upset over the smallest perceived offenses, we cry foul when we don’t get exactly what we think we need. We are a society of offended people, and by our actions we are forcing the next generation to learn that they deserve whatever they desire, that working together only benefits everyone as long as we’re each getting exactly what we want. We are the whining child who wants everyone to listen to what we have to say, and agree that we’re brilliant and wonderful and of course we’ll do things your way, dear.

Our pendulum will not stay here. There will come a point of excess, where we as a group cry “Too far!”, and begin to reconsider the actions which led to this. At that time, conversations will become fruitful, leading to sensible actions that benefit the whole of society. Reason and logic will return to our governing bodies. Things that offend us deeply now will be seen as laughable, a relic of bygone times, when we were not as well-informed, when our capacity for reason had yet to mature. I hope, dear friends, that the point at which we turn aside from these petty grievances is not too painful, and does not have too high a cost. I hope, for our collective sake, that we have not done more damage than we can resolve.


A Changing State of Mind

I feel like I’ve been a student my whole life. That’s not a bad thing, from a certain point of view. I’ve always been open to learning new information and shifting the way I perceive a thing if factual evidence is presented. My mother is a teacher, I grew up around teachers, and I’ve always felt a deep comfort in being able to learn a new thing. Learning is good. Childlike learning, when you get hit with a soul-deep sense of wonder at the discovery of a thing, is the best.

I’ve been an undergraduate, graduate student, and post-doctoral fellow. All different forms of the same state of mind – learning how to “be” the next step. And as each iteration of learner, I was treated as such by those from whom I was gaining the necessary information. Not as an equal, but as a scientific padawan. “Here, this is what you need to know. Learn it and then show me you can do it.” Check. Next level, acquired.

But these days, I’m the one leading the way. I’m the one imparting information, planning the projects, submitting project proposals with anxious hope that they’ll be funded, teaching the undergraduates, and directing the graduate students in practical applications. This is where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s not easy, and bumps in the road are continuous. Some recent bumps include a former supervisor who offered their expert services recently, because they “knew (I) just didn’t know the field as well as they did.” A colleague who lamented the fact that there was no one else in our unit trained in the field in which they perform research. An associated researcher complaining of having “no one to collaborate with”. Another associated researcher who casually mentioned work that needs to be done in their lab, hinting that I should be the one to oversee it, because they weren’t present when the original work was performed.

That these and other issues were so quick to catch my attention has forced me to realize that I am in the midst of a change in my patterns of thinking and reacting. I am not the observing learner, but the interested colleague with something to contribute. My work is important, my students are important, and what I can contribute to not only the department but to our industry as a whole is important. My considered responses to the previous issues are…No, I don’t need your kind of expertise on this project. No, you’re incorrect, I’m perfectly well trained in this area, what can I do to help your work? No, we shouldn’t collaborate because you have so much to do already. Perhaps in the future. No, if work needs to be done in your lab, then you need to find someone to do it. Failing that, get in there and do it yourself.

Sometimes, my brain has finally figured out, the right response is saying “No” and backing it up.

Ten Days and Counting

Today marks exactly ten days since I became an assistant professor.

Ten LONG days.

Ten of the BEST days I’ve ever experienced.

Let me tell you why.

I believe I’ve mentioned that I love my University. I do, really and truly. I think it’s an amazing group of students, faculty, staff, and administrators that call this rambling, constantly-under-construction campus “home”. I love it here. It just feels right. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love another university or a smaller college, but part of me will always want to be exactly where I am right now.

Having said that, I’ve dealt with some less-than-pleasant situations here. I’ve actually been connected to this university for several years. I did my PhD work here, under fairly intense conditions. My primary adviser had trust issues, and chose to believe that no one in the department wanted to work with her. Yet, she was quite a good chemist, and when she wasn’t consumed by anger and feeling that she had been slighted in some way, she could be very kindhearted and encouraging to her students. Unfortunately, the angry moments happened with increasing frequency. I often sat in her office for a meeting about data analysis or a review of my dissertation in those last months, only to have to deal with a ranting, sometimes crying, clearly unhappy, unfulfilled faculty member. She and I resolved our differences, and I finished my doctoral work, but she was ultimately the most miserable member of the faculty I ever met.

I also stayed here for a post-doctoral appointment, albeit in a different department. The professor for whom I worked had an established, funded project, and a postdoc who was quitting. On the surface, she was leaving because the job took too much of her time, which she needed to spend with her two young children. And it did. Took me months to figure out the deeper reasons – primarily that the project should never have relied on one postdoc. At a bare minimum, a postdoc and one graduate student (really, two) should have been assigned to this project alone. It was a mammoth undertaking for one person to coordinate and perform. Two years after conclusion of that original project, I am still working to verify the collected data. Did I mention that this was only one project that I was expected to complete while in my postdoctoral position? Eventually, when all analyses are done, I’ll be sitting on a small mountain of publications from the last four years of work, but at least once a week I contemplated what would happen if I just walked away from it all. And believe me, those ponderings were well justified.

I have worked in communal offices, barely-ventilated basements, and sweltering shop areas. Crop fields with zero shade in a Mississippi summer, where every step is potentially ankle-snapping, are my nemeses. Field researchers who refuse to stop for lunch or water breaks are anathema to me. I have been told that a postdoc “has no rights because you’re not really staff, faculty, or student”, while the graduate students of other faculty members (not mine) were added to my office space.  I look a little younger than my age, and I tend to be very enthusiastic and exuberant when lecturing, so many students have assumed I’d be a ‘good instructor’, and give extra credit on exams, bonus points for no reason, and ultimately pass everyone who “just tried their best”. I’ve gotten extremely used to being the token girl scientist in the field. I’ve had a grandfatherly farmer literally pat me on the head and tell me to “leave the management decisions to the fellas” when I came to advise him about a disease outbreak. A PI stopped me after a 12-hour marathon of tissue culturing to tell me it could have been done a simpler way.

I say all of that to say this – it was ALL worth it. Even the longest, toughest days had a valuable lesson. There is an overarching theme leading up to today, my tenth day, and it is this…

Don’t you dare quit, ever. It will get better.

Today, I’m ten days in. I’ve officially submitted my first Letter of Intent for a grant. I’m writing two grant proposals. I’m co-teaching one class and developing content for another. I’ve been set up in an office so quiet and pretty and perfect that it makes me smile just to walk in the door. Every thing I’ve needed, the most amazing admin folks have taken care of instantly. I don’t have enough words for the kindness, the welcoming attitude, that I have experienced in my new home. And I wonder what the next ten years will bring.

Welcome to the weirdness

I’m glad you’re all here with me!

*Disclaimer: I actually believe no one will be reading this. I’m completely ok with that. This is my space in the ‘ol Interwebs, not yours. Buzz off, noob.

I’m DrB, and I work in Natural Resources research at a major research university. Recently, I have finished a postdoctoral appointment, and successfully interviewed for an assistant professorship at this university. Did I mention that I love my university? I really, really do. It’s full of incredible people, and I’m constantly amazed at the brilliant work that goes on here.  I don’t remember when I realized that I wanted to be a faculty member at a research university, but it feels like it’s been a part of my plan for a long time.

And yes, there is an actual plan. The plan is sort of… fluid… but it does exist!

So, I’m about to become an assistant professor. My own research. My own grants. My own students. My own terror at being responsible for literally everything that goes on in my lab. I’m starting this blog as an early attempt at corralling my thoughts, because that’s often a difficult task and it seems like something a “professor” should be able to do.

Actually, I don’t really know what a professor “should” do. I know what I’d like to do, and what I’ve seen successful and not-so-successful faculty do. I’ve had the privilege of working with some exceptional research faculty. Professors who engage with their students, in the classroom and in the lab, instructing and listening, correcting and encouraging. I know graduate students who would go to their major advisor for every type of advice. I also know graduate students who have seen their major advisors once every 6 months at most, who don’t know any way to contact their advisor except via email. I know professors who can’t tell you what their student is working on at a particular point in time, and don’t know if they have a piece of equipment in their lab or not. I know professors who take on graduate students to make them proteges, not colleagues. I know faculty members who don’t bother to learn the names of undergraduates working for them.

Pretty sure I know which type of professor I’d like to be. Let’s see how this goes.

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