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Posts Tagged ‘postdoc life’

Day in the #PostdocLife

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Recently, my wife, a.k.a. Polly Putnam, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, did a post for A Day in the Creative Life, a Tumblr page organized by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. So I thought I would borrow an idea from them and post about a day in my life. I’ve left the word “Creative” out of my own title, but it’s worth noting that scientific work is still very creative. I work every day on original ways to slice and dice data collected by the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC); a lot of creative work goes into achieving that goal.

It’s also a team effort. As I go through the play-by-play of my day, you’ll see there are a lot of meetings and conversations and emails. Indeed, people often joke that CMS stands for Continuous Meeting Society! You might be tempted to see this as overly bureaucratic, but I hope to it will come across to you that the way we organize ourselves is a necessary approach to worldwide collaboration on one of the biggest of Big Science experiments there is. Just in a single day, the colleagues I interact directly with are in America, the UK, France, Switzerland, India, and China.

06:00 Wake up, in the darkness, slightly later than usual.

07:00 Out the door and warming up the car. Normally my wife would drive me to the train station, which is just across the river from the palace she works at, but today she’s at home and I’ll drive myself. This is scary, because most of the driving I’ve done in my life was on an automatic transmission in the United States — here, I have to deal with the clutch, drive on the left side of the road, and deal with far less space than I’m used to.

07:24 My first train leaves Hampton Court Station. I sit down and resume reading Seeing White, a textbook recommended by Harvard Astronomy Professor John Asher Johnson as a starting point for learning how to help address racial inequity in science and beyond. My trip involves changing trains once and a bit of a walk through London at the end.

08:30 I arrive at the office at Imperial College London and take stock of my day, especially the emails about the meeting I’m leading in 90 minutes.

09:00 Chat with colleagues about their contributions to the aforementioned meeting.

09:30 Throw together my own “news” slides outlining the status of the project and how people can help.

10:00 Go to a meeting room and “phone in” to the meeting I organize, where we work on preparing software for “Higgs to Gamma Gamma” — that is, to (re)discover and study the Higgs boson decaying into pairs of photons when LHC Run 2 starts this summer. I give my overview, others give more detailed talks on their progress, and we discuss what we need to do next.

11:00 Breathing a sigh of relief, I finally start on a bit of actual work for a new project I’m helping with. “Actual work” usually means, to me, writing and testing C++ code, although at the moment I’m also editing a wiki page so that colleagues can follow along with what I’ve figured it out. While my code is compiling I correspond with colleagues who want to contribute to my other project — informal discussion meetings are set up for tomorrow, which will also be “by phone.”

11:30 I grab a sandwich and eat it, along with delicious roast vegetable stew.

12:30 On “the phone” with another colleague, talking about handing off a coding task that I originally planned to start on but no longer have time for. After walking through what I know so far, I promise to help as needed with the details.

13:15 More interleaved emails and bits of coding.

14:30 I drop in on one of the academics I work with. As a senior postdoc, I do most of my work — and even help organize others’ work — mostly independently, but the overall priorities of CMS and my research group are set by more senior folks. I go to them with questions or just to check in about my overall progress and next steps.

14:40 Start a major edit of the instructions on my new project, testing each step as I go.

15:00 “Phone in” to the general Higgs to Gamma Gamma meeting. This is a broader meeting than the working meeting in the morning, where I can keep track of other work on analysis development and preparation for the next LHC run, as well as the analyses that continue on the data we already have.

15:03 Computer crashes. Reboot in a panic, phone back into meeting just in time for it to start.

15:20 Realize the instructions I was editing were lost in the reboot. Restart from where I last saved and repeat my work as I listen to presentations in the meeting.

17:00 After the meeting ends, I finish my documentation and check in with the person organizing that project. Check back in to help the colleague I talked to at 12:30.

17:45 Process an email with new code for the Higgs to Gamma Gamma analysis framework. Check that it works before adding it to the overall project.

18:05 Start going home. Have several train mishaps but eventually sneak on. Work on a bit of blogging when I finally get a seat.

19:15 Get off the train, get in the car, and go grocery shopping.

20:15 Supper. Couples’ Minecraft. Eventually, sleep.

And then I start it all again the next day.


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.


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?


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


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.


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!


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!


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.


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?


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!