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Long time, relocation!

So, it’s been a while. I’m now in the UK having left my research fellow post in the USA to take up a permanent Lecturer (Assistant Professor) position at a UK university so I can start to build my own group.

It’s been a year today since I started my new role and I’m sad to report, I thought I would have achieved much more this year. I’ve come to a department that was research-intensive, then wasn’t, and now they want to be again. They brought in a group of new lecturers, me included, as part of this endeavor. Unfortunately, the research facilities are not all up to scratch. The cupboard door on my fume hood fell off a couple of days ago and we’re about to have the fifth or sixth fume cupboard shutdown since I’ve been here next week. Progress has, therefore, been slow. Let me say this, if I can do what I’ve done here, I can do it anywhere! It’s not all bad and the investments being made will turn things around eventually. However, it’s been a rough year.

Setting up your own lab is difficult. When it’s just you for the year, it can be really rough. I was given a couple of undergraduate project students to do research, but nothing much came of it as they struggled with the projects they were given. I spent a lot of time assisting them with their research, and was sad that after a lot of effort nothing had really been delivered. The rest of the time I’ve been learning to teach, teaching and squeezing in my own research. Luckily, I came here with a little grant that has allowed me to purchase the chemicals I need. Without that, I do not know how I would have survived.

I managed to talk a first year undergraduate student into working on a computational project this summer. He seems happy modeling proteins while I spend the summer in the lab synthesizing peptides. I’ve heard a lot of new academics are given PhD students by their department. This did not happen, so once my undergraduate finishes this summer, my research group will be back down to a number of 1. I’m frantically writing grants to get money for a postdoc and technician so that it’s not just me and my research activities can become productive while I’m teaching. I actually love what I do, but I wish it were just a little bit easier here.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. Trying to get data and money to start a research group while doing my first proper teaching role. Challenging, tiring, but fun.


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I work at Hogwarts

You know how there’s all those jokes about trying to get on the tenure track, trying to stay on it and actually making it through review? You know, all those stories about the hell that is trying to survive and get by in academia where some of it seems like an undocumented feature? Well, this week I had a day where I felt like I was acting out a metaphor for academic life. All I had to do was find a room.

There was a seminar. A networking session. Free pizza. An opportunity to meet new drinking buddies peers who could assist my slow climb to world domination the next boulder up the academic mountain. The instructions were simple enough; go to room 747, in the Health Sciences building, at 12. Simples. The building is logical enough (I thought), rooms number 100 – 199 are on the first floor, rooms 200+ on the second, etc. Pretty straight forward. I’ve never been to the 700s before though, so I go early incase I happen to get lost.

I get to the building excited at the possibility of meeting more like-minded people and I find there are only 6 floors. It’s either the 6th floor or the roof. I pick 6th. This is when I learn that rabbit warrens have been built within our university buildings. There are corridors hidden within corridors. Some seem to shut themselves off from others once you are in them. Some corridors look like you shouldn’t be there, either that or they ran out of money for paint and adequate lighting.

I figure I’ll handle this logically. If there is no 7th floor then the 700s should be somewhere here, a split level floor perhaps? So I start walking in the direction where the 600 numbers increase. I trudge onwards, turning corners into more corners. No one else appeared to be here. I saw cadavers. No seminar room. Still alone. Is the 6th floor out of bounds and no one told me? The 600s started decreasing. I took a door that linked me to more corridors that enclosed the corridors I’d been wandering down. Numbers started increasing and then I found the 700s… they increased, for a bit. Then they stopped. The 600s started again. This madness continues for a while as the inclination to keep looking over my shoulder grows. I start to wonder if this is some hidden camera show for tenured faculty to watch. There is no room 747. Tenured faculty send out those emails and then watch the rest of us come and visit their maze of hell.

But, I did check… and there was a room 747 listed on the university webpage. Having met professors who have eschewed excel files for a print out of a graph so they can check a line of fit is straight or asked me to weigh cutouts of my peaks instead of using a computer to integrate them – talk about old school –  I can’t imagine tenured professors would have the know how to hack the university web just for a joke.

Then it dawned on me. These corridors don’t lead to room 747. It was obvious. I work at Hogwarts! I’ve overlooked the possibility that the staircases change! It’s just a matter of waiting for the staircase to move so I can gain access to room 747. But then… which staircase? It appears this may be a group only for those fledgling faculty who are in “the know”. If you can find it, you can move your piece forward in the game of tenure. I have not yet received the staircase knowledge. Must I go back to “Go”? Do I collect $200?

Or, is it like the room of requirement? Where, if I had wanted it hard enough, the magical room 747 would have appeared to serve my needs. I thought I really wanted this career, but the door didn’t appear when I hovered by the other 700s. Maybe I don’t want to be a professor as much as I thought? But then, they did have free pizza. And, I really did want that pizza.

I’m an academic. In search of a room.

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Suggestions to Introduce Scientific Newspeak

A physics professor (to myself whom I call idiot-boy), suggested that we simplify scientific language and replace words like theory, hypothesis and law with the word model. Words that have very specific and different meanings he wants to replace with one word, model. A word ambiguous in itself. Here is the original article. Here is and article by Scientific American that succinctly disagrees and goes on to define some typically misinterpreted scientific terms.

I am angered that one of my own, a physicist, a professor, an educator, should have the nerve to suggest we simplify the science language allowing both laziness and further ambiguity to insert itself into science and scientific communication. There is nothing wrong with having specific words.

If people don’t understand the exact meanings, that just shows us we need to do better as educators at explaining them, not remove them!

My significant other hearing me rant on this subject brought up the horrifying parallel with George Orwell’s 1984. So here, I illustrate the insidious nature of wanting to simplify scientific language by the removal of certain terms. 

First read this, taken from George Orwell’s novel 1984:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?”

Now read this, taken from Three Science Words We Should Stop Using:

“Take out all three of these “science” words from introductory texts. They do more harm than good. The problem is that people have firm beliefs that they mean something other than what they are supposed to mean. I don’t think we can save these words.


So, how does a model replace the three words I don’t like? Well, if we say science is all about making models, you don’t have to use the word hypothesis. Instead you can talk about predictions a model makes (testable predictions). A theory is a model, so that would be a one to one replacement. What about Laws? I don’t think it would be terrible to also replace Laws with the word “model”.” 

Scary to hear an educator talk like that, isn’t it?

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Whenever I see the words Follow on a website, which, of course, I did while setting up this blog, I can’t help but hear the voice of John Silke who does the voice of the Hero in Fable. All too well do I remember the ominous sounding “Follow” as I beckoned my virtual charges to wander after me through exploding spore infested swamps teaming with bandits and Balverines, and all with the promise that I would see them safely to the other side. I love video games, but I suck at a lot of them, so, imagine just how many of my charges didn’t make it to the other side. The Balverines did not go hungry. 

And, with this random thought I start my blog. Follow…

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