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Posts Tagged ‘postdoc life’

My Week as a Real Scientist

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

For a week at the end of January, I was a real scientist. Actually, I’m always a real scientist, but only for that week was I tweeting from the @realscientists Twitter account, which has a new scientist each week typing about his or her life and work. I tweeted a lot. I tweeted about the conference I was at. I tweeted about the philosophy of science and religion. I tweeted about how my wife, @CuratorPolly, wasn’t a big fan of me being called the “curator” of the account for the week. I tweeted about airplanes and very possibly bagels. But most of all I tweeted the answers to questions about particle physics and the LHC.

Real Scientists wrote posts for the start and end of my week, and all my tweets for the week are at this Storify page. My regular twitter account, by the way, is @sethzenz.

I was surprised by how many questions people had when I they were told that a real physicist at a relatively high-profile Twitter account was open for questions. A lot of the questions had answers that can already be found, often right here on Quantum Diaries! It got me thinking a bit about different ways to communicate to the public about physics. People really seem to value personal interaction, rather than just looking things up, and they interact a lot with an account that they know is tweeting in “real time.” (I almost never do a tweet per minute with my regular account, because I assume it will annoy people, but it’s what people expect stylistically from the @realscientists account.) So maybe we should do special tweet sessions from one of the CERN-related accounts, like @CMSexperiment, where we get four physicists around one computer for an hour and answer questions. (A lot of museums did a similar thing with #AskACurator day last September.) We’ve also discussed the possibility of doing a AMA on Reddit. And the Hangout with CERN series will be starting again soon!

But while you’re waiting for all that, let me tell you a secret: there are lots of physicists on Twitter. (Lists here and here and here, four-part Symmetry Magazine series here and here and here and here.) And I can’t speak for everyone, but an awful lot of us would answer questions if you had any. Anytime. No special events. Just because we like talking about our work. So leave us comments. Tweet at us. Your odds of getting an answer are pretty good.

In other news, Real Scientists is a finalist for the Shorty Award for social media’s best science. We’ll have to wait and see how they — we? — do in a head-to-head matchup with giants like NASA and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But I think it’s clear that people value hearing directly from researchers, and social media seems to give us more and more ways to communicate every year.

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Which is the Real CERN?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Is this CERN...?

Is this CERN…?

Or is this CERN...?

Or is this CERN…?

A few weeks ago, at the very real peril of spending our weekend on something that was a little like work for both of us, I went with my wife to the Collider exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Collider a detailed, immersive exhibit about the Large Hadron Collider and the people who work on it. It’s amazing to hear video interviews from real physicists and see real places at CERN reproduced. A lot of the information is on realistic-looking whiteboards, and there’s real stuff lying everywhere just like in real offices. (The real stuff is glued and stapled down; my wife, a museum curator interested in the implementation of the exhibit, checked that detail personally.) One thing that bothered me that might not bother you: the videotaped physicists are clearly actors, with stories told just a bit too dramatically. One thing that might bother you but didn’t bother me, because I can skip reading signage and just explain to my wife what I think it should say: not all of the amazing things you could see are explained very well.

But the fun part really is the feeling of actually being in the midst of where the science is done. For example, at right, you can see a picture of me in one of the CERN hallways recreated for the exhibit, and you can see a picture of me in front of the real version of the same office. But which is which?

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Can you think of anything that all the men who won the Nobel Prizes in science this year have in common? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is already in the question. In fact, out of 195 people awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1901, only two have been women: Marie Curie in 1901 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the status of women in science and what we say about it lately, ever since reading the most recent posts on the subject here on Quantum Diaries. Both were written by James Doherty: “Girls, at CERN – loads of ’em!” and “Five Lessons from a Summer at CERN” (formerly titled, in part, “Italians are Hot,” and still with a subsection by that name). I think it should become clear that I don’t approve of James’s tone in some places, although I understand that he was aiming to convey his experience as a summer student in “an open, honest and light-hearted way.” At the same time, Quantum Diaries is a place for voices from the physics community: writers here usually don’t speak for anyone, but we are supposed to be representative. So, if we are going to talk about the issues faced by women in physics, we also need voices from professional particle physicists, who have thought and learned a bit about where gender inequalities arise and their implications for our field. In that spirit, let me put forward my viewpoint, along with links to many other views I’ve found educational; I’m sorry to say that from my perspective there’s a bit less to be light-hearted about.

Particle physics is my job. I come to CERN every day and work with my colleagues to learn more about the universe. Some of my colleagues are women. Some are men. Some are Italian. Who they are, how they look, or what they’re wearing cannot be my foremost concerns. If I don’t look all of my colleagues in the eye and listen to what they’re saying, then I am doing poorly at my job. I’m likely to suffer for it later, because whoever I didn’t listen to probably said something I need to know. The starting point is to treat everyone professionally and with respect.

Easy enough to agree with so far; I think almost everyone would. The problem is that, well, we still have a problem. As Pauline Gagnon wrote here last year, more and more women are joining our field, but they are still greatly underrepresented. Unless you believe that women are inherently bad at physics – and there are pretty straightforward reasons to believe that that can’t possibly be causing the imbalance – then something is going wrong somewhere. A lot of excellent potential physicists are deciding against physics as a career at one stage or another, or perhaps never learning about it in the first place, or are even being pushed or nudged out by sexism. Anywhere we lose potential colleagues makes our work poorer.

Where is it going wrong, and what can we do about it? Well, my experience actually isn’t very informative. I have never seen an example of deliberate ill-will toward female participation in physics, and indeed I’ve only recognized a few situations that were even accidentally awkward. But bias can be unconscious and difficult to recognize. As a scientist, I know two things:

1. Just because I’ve never seen something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
2. I can read what other people have written to learn about stuff.

So here are some articles and blogs I have found enlightening, in particular on the question of what actions we can take as scientists to help bring about more even participation by women:

The literature on women in science, technology, engineering, and math is enormous, and I’m very far from knowing all of it well. Do you have a favorite article or study, especially on what we as scientists can do better? Post the link and I’ll add it below.

Update, Oct 16: Some suggested links (thanks, Ben, Sarah, and Ken!):

Update, Oct 21 (thanks, Marga!): http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/10/a-ripple-of-voices-against-sexism.html

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Wedding Cake

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013
My wedding cake

My wedding cake

The decorations on our wedding cake feature one of my wife’s hobbies and one of mine. Can you identify both?

Cake by Clare Brown.  Photograph by Malcolm Anderson.

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A Change of Pace

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Some physicists and engineers from Purdue and DESY, and me, at the beamline we used to test new pixel designs

Every so often, a physicist needs a vacation from doing data analysis for the Higgs boson search. A working vacation, something that gets you a little closer to the actual detector you work on. So last week, I was at the DESY laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, helping a group of physicists and engineers study possible changes to the design of individual pixels in the CMS Pixel Detector. (I’ve written before about how a pixel detector works.) We were at DESY because they had an electron beam we could use, and we wanted to study how the new designs performed with actual particles passing through them. Of course, the new designs can’t be produced in large scale for a few years — but we do plan to run CMS for many, many years to come, and eventually we will need to upgrade and replace its pixel detector.

What do you actually do at a testbeam? You sit there as close to 24 hours a day as you can — in shifts, of course. You take data. You change which new design is in the beam, or you change the angle, or you change the conditions under which it’s running. Then you take more data. And you repeat for the entire week.

So do any of the new designs work better? We don’t know yet. It’s my job to install the software to analyze the data we took, and to help study the results, and I haven’t finished yet. And yes, even “working on the detector” involves analyzing data — so maybe it wasn’t so much of a vacation after all!

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What Went on My Research Page

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Remember when I was wondering, “What Goes on My Research Page?” Well, I finally decided what to put on it and got it posted:

Seth Zenz – Princeton University Department of Physics

Let me know what you think!

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I don’t really like flying, but…

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

An airplane wing over Jeju, Korea You wouldn’t think so, given how much time I spend on airplanes, but I don’t like flying at all. I like seeing new places, but I think I’d be just as happy exploring every stop on the New York Subway as flying to new countries and exotic locales. But then it turned out that the science I wanted to do, and also the love of my life, happened to be on another continent. (Luckily, the same one!) Being a physicist is a travel-intensive business. So here I am, on my first trip to Asia, about to be run over by a typhoon.

Look forward to an entry from me sometime this week on the VERTEX 2012 conference. The conference doesn’t have a hash tag, but I might tweet about it anyway, if you’re terribly curious how it’s going.

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What Goes on My Research Page?

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

It is time, it seems, for me to put up my first real departmental research page. This is a place to put up a picture, describe my research interests, and maybe link to some papers. It shouldn’t really be too difficult to write something up, as I have seem to have acquired a disturbing amount of practice in rambling about my research and putting up web pages about myself. But looking at others’ research pages has left me with a nagging question: what, really, are my research interests?

“CMS and ATLAS are two of a kind: they’re both looking for whatever new particles they can find.” — Kate McAlpine, Large Hadron Rap

In most fields, I would talk about a very specific set of problems I was interested in, and say what sort of experiments I was doing to figure things out. But the big detectors at the LHC try to look for everything, and I work on them because I’m interested in finding anything new that’s there. Am I especially interested in electroweak symmetry breaking because I work on the Higgs boson? Am I a precision tracking enthusiast because I’ve worked on pixel detectors? Well, yes, to some degree both those things are true — but the fundamental motivation for my research is to contribute to the overall program of understanding what the universe is made of, by whatever means my skills and the available opportunities allow.

Still, I suppose I had better be a bit more specific. Anyone have any suggestions?

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More Multitasking

Friday, April 13th, 2012

I fell out of practice at multitasking at the end of grad school. For the final six months, almost all of my work went into finalizing how to present my analysis results. There were two versions of the presentation: the paper and my thesis, but the general direction of work was all the same. The previous tasks I had worked on, geared toward keeping ATLAS running, were all long since “done,” at least as far as I was concerned.

Starting a postdoc means a sudden change of gears, with more multitasking than ever before. I’ve started many new projects from scratch at the same time, and because I’m new to CMS, every one of those tasks involves tools and procedures that I don’t know. It’s easy to lose track of some of those tasks at any given time, or simply to want to focus on one thing until I understand it, but the job doesn’t work that way. Being succesful as a postdoc will mean significant contributions to the running and understanding of the detector and significant contributions to keeping my group’s analysis running and starting a new analysis (sub)channel of my own. None can be dropped, and most of the things I’m doing have deadlines in the next few months.

So I’m having to remember and improve my multitasking skills, quickly. Step one is bringing this post to a close, and asking you to wish me luck, and getting back to work!

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Change of state

Friday, November 25th, 2011

A few weeks ago I bumped into one my group’s former students, Rozmin. She’s still jetlagged from her journey here and she had the look on her face that told me she’d been through the change of state. She’d transitioned from a grad student to a postdoc. The metamorphosis is not an easy one, and in fact no matter how much time you spend preparing for it, and how long it takes, there are always some surprises.

A while back she was still editing her thesis. Today she is finding her feet in a new role, one with more responsibilities, more challenges and fewer safety nets. From now on, students will look to her for help, and expect to get answers. I should point out that grad students do a great deal of the work here at ATLAS, and they answer a lot of the questions we have, and perform a lot of the studies that we need. But they’re here primarily to learn, the postdocs are primarily here to work, and at the back of our minds we have prejudices about our roles. As a postdoc I feel that I should be mentoring students and helping them, rather than having them help me, even though I spent most of my first year here playing catch up with students who knew the experiment inside out. As a student on BaBar, what mattered most was getting the thesis written, and I felt that it was okay to make mistakes, ask for help and tell people I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Becoming a postdoc

Becoming a postdoc

The difference between being a student and a postdoc is mostly cosmetic, and a lot of the time it’s hard to tell whether someone has graduated yet. The real difference is one of attitude. When Rozmin was a student she was impressed that I seemed to know a little bit about every part of particle physics, especially the history. She would ask me how I knew about the history of CP violation and the tau-theta puzzle, and I’d reply knowingly “It’s a postdoc thing.” “Like a special power?” “Yeah, postdoc power!” Of course at that point she knew it was a bit of an act. I knew little more than she did, but I said it with confidence, and that inspires confidence in others. I’ve had quite a few roles where I had to put on an act of confidence like that. One of my favorite examples was when I worked for a telephone helpline where there was a locked desk drawer full of secret help for the coordinators. When I finally saw what was inside I was surprised to find nothing but a bottle of gin, some chocolate, and an electric drill. I asked what the drill was for and they replied “To stop volunteers messing around with it.” Huh. It looks like sometimes we need to be told that the only source of reassurance is feigned confidence.

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

There’s no magic solution, no ancient wisdom and in research, everything is new. Once you realize that, and once you realize that everyone is out of their depth and everyone is working without a safety net, life becomes much easier. Then you can tell your grad students what they need to hear. “That’s an interesting question, let’s look it up online” means “I don’t know any more than you do”, “Let’s talk to Frank about this over coffee” means “I have no idea how to even get started on this problem, but I could use a break”, and “A similar study was tried at UA1″ means “I have a tiny amount of information about this from a long time ago, but at least that means it’s not completely new.” And so on. It’s takes a while to get used to. I even managed to get a taste of life as a Professor recently. When faced with a particularly challenging problem the head of our department told me simply “Welcome to the world of supervision!” In that world, the stakes are higher, the help is rarer and it takes even more courage to make decisions with so much uncertainty.

Naturally there are more changes than a slightly different day job. Rozmin has had to move house (to a different continent) again and settle down somewhere new. This is one of the most traumatizing experiences a person can go through, so doing it in French, when your husband is thousands of miles away and you’ve got a high pressure job (as well as your student’s high pressure job) taking up all your time, it can get even more tricky. The dynamic of our friendship has changed since she got back, as we spend more time together, going for a coffee or a drink, talking about our respective jobs and problems. The shift in our friendship has brought us closer and now we’re both free of our theses, and can focus on what we came here for, the physics.

It's all about the small achievements

It's all about the small achievements

It’s challenging, it’s scary, it’s all about the unknown and even the unknowable. But it’s like I always say: We don’t these things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend! Thanks to Jorg Cham for the comics. PHD Comics

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