The Quantum Conundrum

Placeholder ImageQuantum mechanics kicked my tuchis. And yet I’m completely fascinated by it.

Sounds a lot like Stockholm Syndrome, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it’s the allure of the unknown that pulls physicists, chemists, and all those other freaks towards it. Quantum Mechanics is based heavily on probability, and the best friend of probability is uncertainty. Not being able to predict how a system will behave is like the first stage in a relationship: every new thing you learn about the person you’re seeing is magical and exciting. It’s when you’ve been together forever (or for a year, whichever comes first) that the magical becomes the boring.

However, the unpredictability of quantum mechanics seems to outlast the number of years of all failed marriages put together. What could be more magical than that?

I had taken a physical chemistry course as an undergrad that was an introduction to quantum mechanics. My first semester in grad school I had to take an advanced thermodynamics course which was half classical, half quantum. Both parts involved statistical mechanics, and I found the whole thing fascinating to no end.

Then the next semester came. And I finally came to understand the meaning of the phrase, “Ah, to be young and foolish.”

See, in addition to my kinetics course, I had to pick another class that would be related to my research. Well, wouldn’t you believe it, but most courses remotely related to the topics of my group’s research were only offered in the fall! There was ONE CLASS offered for the spring term that I could take. You would think a place like Cornell would have more to offer.

The problem was that this class was the second in a two-course sequence, and Cornell allowed students to register for courses even if they hadn’t satisfied the pre-requisites. I guess they figured that if you were stupid enough to do that, the class would just flush you out anyway. Well, I figured that I’d already had experience in quantum mechanics and was prepared to face Part II.

Definitely not.

I was in the Chemical Engineering department, but the course was offered through the department of Applied and Engineering Physics. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but Cornell has the top AEP program in the country. Their students are the best the country has to offer, and the curriculum essentially turns them into double math and physics majors.

Have you ever spent time around either math or physics majors? Physics majors are definitely nerds, but math majors are the creme de la creme of the uber-nerds. These are people who are so brilliant but so strange that you wonder how they’re able to find their way home everyday. Now put the two together and what do you get? A collision of forces so great that Earth itself would start spinning backwards on its axis.

THAT was my quantum mechanics course. I was an engineering graduate student in an UNDERGRADUATE course begging all that is holy to just let me pass. There’s a situation I never thought I’d find myself in. From day one, I had no idea what was going on. It seemed the harder I tried, the worse I did.

I was even criticized for not knowing the math as well as the other students who had been taught all the tricks to solving the complicated integrals that kept popping up. When I was so condescendingly asked, “Don’t they teach this math in chemical engineering?” it was all I could do to not retort, “You mean wave math? Sorry, lady, that’s electrical engineering.” (While chemical engineers do learn wave mechanics and some quantum mechanics, our approach is strictly for application, not theory. Huge, huge, huge difference.) Plus, the other students had all just taken linear algebra, a course that’s extremely essential to understanding quantum mechanics. I had taken the course five years prior.

I took off time from my lab and spent five days straight just studying for my midterm. ALL DAY FOR FIVE DAYS STRAIGHT. I had even been going to a tutor on a weekly basis to try to make some sense of the gibberish in front of me.

I got a 38. Out of 100.

I panicked right before going in to take the exam, and for the next two hours, my mind was a complete blank. I was ready to throw in the towel.

Fortunately, my adviser was able to talk me out of making any rash decisions, and I made it through the rest of the semester with a passing grade. Two years later, after finishing my research, I got my master’s. The class nearly broke me, but I got through it and achieved my goals.

Maybe it was the experience of having my backside handed to me that makes me even more interested in this subject. Perhaps I just need to prove to myself that I have the ability to master the material. Or maybe it is just that feeling of always being caught off guard by unpredictability, that exciting and almost magical experience of constantly learning something new.

But what is the fascination with quantum mechanics? I just described it the same way you would a torture device. The whole field is Sisyphean in nature.

Because it’s so amazing! The more hidden something is, the more you aim to discover the answer. There’s always an answer; we just have to learn (or discover) the method to getting to it.

Here’s one example of the elusiveness of quantum mechanics. There is a principle called superposition, which means that any quantum states can be added together to create another quantum state. If we have 2 quantum states, before taking a measurement, the system is in both states (state 1 AND state 2, not OR). It’s only after a measurement is taken that the system “collapses” into one of the original states.

Confused yet? I sure was when I first learned about this.

Want to hear something even more strange? Ever heard of Schrodinger’s cat?

Erwin Schrodinger was one of the “founders” of quantum mechanics. As such, he was quite a brilliant man but also, in my opinion, somewhat disturbed, as evidenced by his infamous thought experiment.

To explain the principle of superposition, Schrodinger described a system that included a cat in a box with some sort of radioactive element. If the element decayed, the cat would die; otherwise, it would live.

Sounds crazy, right? Just wait.

Schrodinger explained that until we open the box, we have no idea what the cat’s situation is. But according to quantum mechanics, two possible states exist: dead and alive. There is an equal probability that the system exists in either state; however, since we have not observed the system, the combination of the two states results in the cat being both dead and alive. When the box is opened, the system collapses into one of the possibilities: dead or alive.

How can something be both fascinating and disturbing at the same time? Well, according to quantum mechanics, both of those states can exist. 🙂 So you really can have your cake AND eat it, too!

Fortunately, scientists and engineers have been able to unlock some of the mysteries of quantum mechanics and manipulate it in a way that brings us technology such as the microchips, MRI machines, and quantum computers. It’s still one of science’so best-kept secrets and is proof that no matter how much we know, there’s always more to discover.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

It’s a … !

That’s right! Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak is expecting something wonderful this August! Everyone is so excited about this life-changing event!

That’s right. You guessed it.

It’s a …

Graduate School!

Oh, wait. Did you think I was pregnant?

Nope, no baby. But it is a wonderful life-changing event, and it is happening this August. (Well, actually, this June since I’ll start my work in a lab then, but the “official” first day of grad school is in August.)

Why am I making such a big deal about this? Because it is a big deal! And not just for me but for anyone celebrating something momentous in their lives, be it a new degree program, a job promotion, or an actual baby. 🙂 We have parties for gender reveals, engagements, and weddings, but the only time we celebrate something non-family related is graduating from high school. And while all the family-related events in our lives are important and deserve to be celebrated, why should that take away from the other life-impacting events?

I’m a single woman; I don’t have kids, and I’m not that far away from 30. This is not the opening line to a “Woe is me, I don’t have a man, and my biological clock is ticking” tirade. I love being single. I love getting up and working and only having to focus on that. Before you start feeling sorry for me, my work is very fulfilling to me and it’s a multi-faceted job. I’m never bored, and I always feel like I have a purpose.

I like being able to go and do whatever I please, whenever I please. In the last year alone I took trips to Chicago, New York, and Israel, and I got to do everything at my own pace. I like that my apartment is MINE. I only ever had one experience with a roommate during a summer internship and I vowed I would never have another one. Seriously, if I ever do get married, my husband will have his own place.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not good at compromising.

I may never get married. And you know what? I would be perfectly fine with that. Sure, there are times I wish I had a husband. Like when I have a car full of groceries and I have to schlep them all the way up to my third-floor apartment alone. Or when the place is a mess, I’ve had a long day at work, and I have to cook and clean by myself. Or when I’ve had a bad day and I want someone to talk to. But then I realize that I can call up my brothers or sisters or one of my many amazing friends and talk to them instead. And also, once I get my Ph.D., I’ll be able to afford someone to help me with the household chores. I just need to hold out until then. 🙂

You may read this and think, “You’re finding fulfillment in only temporary situations. What are you going to do when you’re work isn’t as fulfilling, and you get tired of being alone?”

I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Maybe then I’ll finally be ready to compromise. 😉

And in the meantime, I’m going to kick up my heels and celebrate every possible moment I can. So, in the spirit of celebration, I’m instituting a new trend: the grad school reveal party! In a couple weeks, I’m going to announce to family and friends which grad school I chose at which to pursue my Ph.D. by giving each of my parents a gift from said school. I’m even Skyping in the brothers who live out of state. We’ll eat and play games and just enjoy having a reason to get together and have some fun.

Isn’t that the whole point of celebrating? It doesn’t really even matter what the reason is (as long as it’s positive; no reason to celebrate Uncle Merlin’s death).

But it’s nice to show others that we’re proud of them for the wise choices they’ve made; the hard work they’ve invested; and all of the benefits that have come as a result. Not everyone is cut out for marriage and parenthood (looking at you, Henry VIII); but that shouldn’t make them any less worthy of a good celebration.

Too many people, especially women, are defined by others regarding whether or not they have the capability to “attract a mate” and are fertile enough. Again, don’t get me wrong: marriage and kids are great things to have. But not everyone wants them at the same time. Some of us are going to be older than others, some younger. Some may not even bother.

Maybe if we celebrated other important life events, such as successes at school and at work, we would develop a more inclusive attitude. Maybe we would in some indirect way boost the confidence of those who are waiting for the right person or their first baby to come along and make them feel like a necessary part of society in spite of the fact that they haven’t started their own families yet.

We have enough pressure on us as it is, women and men alike. We’re pressured to go to school, get good jobs, make money, and support ourselves in a nice middle-class style (at least). Many people sacrifice their dreams in the name of being “responsible” so they can earn a better paycheck. (Though sometimes it can be a necessary sacrifice; if you’re looking to be the next famous modern artist, you may have to get used to living with Mom and Pop for a while. But that doesn’t mean your day won’t come.)

And today it doesn’t seem to matter how qualified you are, even in STEM; the jobs are still pretty difficult to come by. Unless you were writing code at age 10 to analyze MLB statistics and mastered French and Mandarin and had also published a novel or two, your chances of being a shoo-in for your dream job are slim to none. Instead, you have to take the jobs that come to you, gain experience, and then eventually pursue your dream job.

And most people get there as long as they keep working at it and don’t lose sight of their goals. But that takes a lot of time and patience, things that always seem to be too far out of reach. That’s why all of these accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.

You landed your first job? Good for you!

You got that promotion you’ve been working toward for so long? So great to hear!

You finally told off your boss and left for another job? You go, girl!

You got your dream job? I couldn’t be more happy for you!

And each of those above scenarios should follow up with, “LET’S PARTYYYYY!!!!!”

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(ding)!

Let me preface this by saying that I love dudes. They’re awesome. The majority of the ones with whom I’ve interacted are intelligent, competent, and supportive of women’s rights. In fact, I know quite a few who would be the first to call someone out on a sexist statement.

But that doesn’t negate the fact that we still have a major problem, especially for the women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Problem? What problem? More women are involved in STEM now than a hundred years ago. They’re allowed in pretty much every area of the workforce.

To quote Senator DeHaven in the movie G.I. Jane, “If a cannibal used a knife and fork, would you call that progress too?”

Drop the mic.

Yes, we have made progress in the last hundred years. And let’s reflect on those years for a moment, shall we? Women were not “allowed” to vote until 1920. Basically, you weren’t allowed to determine who else would be telling you “no” every time you wanted to do something.

Women were not “allowed” to apply for a credit card in their own names until 1974 with the advent of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Yep, you heard right. At that point, you had more work opportunities outside the domestic sphere, but you still couldn’t have as much financial freedom. Heaven forbid if your husband or father couldn’t control your assets.

Women were not “allowed” to attend military academies until 1976. How poetic. In America’s bicentennial year of independence, women were finally given an equal opportunity to attend prestigious military schools that would help prepare them for serving their country. And it only took 200 years.

Women were not “allowed” to press charges on their husbands for raping them until 1993, when marital rape was finally made illegal across the country. That was less than 25 years ago. If he wanted it, he got it. And he didn’t need your permission. Because you weren’t “allowed” to have a say.

We have made progress. And thank you, boys, for “allowing” us to have that progress. But what exactly did this progress achieve for us women? Basic rights. The Declaration of Independence, while I understand is not law but is still held as a bastion of all that America stands for, promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I take that as you have the right to be free to choose what you want to do with your life and define what makes you happy, not what society says will make you happy. That document was penned almost 250 years ago, but we are still fighting to be seen as “created equal with certain inalienable rights.”

Again, the progress we’ve made has been significant. I would much rather be a woman in STEM today than 100 years ago. Reading books like Obsessive Genius about Marie Curie; the Dark Lady of DNA about Rosalind Franklin; and the First Woman Ambulance Surgeon about Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer shed light on just how difficult it was for women to plot their own courses and pursue what THEY determined would make them happy.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not a bash against stay-at-home mothers and housewives. I am a true believer in that no honest work is beneath anyone and all honest work is admirable and valuable towards society.

You want to get married and focus on your home and your family? Awesome!

You want to be a NASA engineer? You go, girl!

You want to be a mail lady? Go rock that blue uniform!

The bottom line is that everyone has the right to pursue their dreams and what is going to make them happy. That is the making of a fulfilled life.

But women in STEM still have to face that uphill battle, as I’m sure women in other fields also have to face. My background is in engineering. In both my undergraduate and graduate programs, a third of the class was female. At my undergraduate institution, there were only two women in the whole department of at least 12 faculty members. When I went away to graduate school, they also had only two women professors but brought in a third during my stay there.

Three women out of approximately 20 professors.

In fact, my alma mater only had one female professor in the department for 20 years before another one joined the ranks.

How’s that for progress?

 

Even once a female academic achieves the coveted faculty job, the uphill struggle doesn’t end there.

A lot of people think that a professor’s job is to teach. That’s only about 25% true. Actually, it’s probably only 10% true. A professor’s role is to do research, which really translates to writing grants to fund their lab work so their graduate students can do the research.

Ever written a grant? I have. Three times. Each time was like running the garbage disposal with a whole bridal registry’s worth of silverware in the drain. I admire people who do something like that full time, and for whatever reason, that is what I aspire to do. There’s a whole science to grant writing. You have a few pages to explain complicated science, your proposed research, your motivation behind it, and a “tentative” budget and timeline. (I honestly don’t know why budgets and timelines are even required for these things since no one ever really sticks to them.) It’s not a skill you can just pick up on the fly; you need a mentor to help walk you through it and be there to shred apart your first draft and bleed a red marker to death all over it.

And good luck finding a trustworthy mentor with no ulterior motives. There are many out there who really do want to help; but there are also a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if that’s who you’re dealing with until you get burned. From what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced, many women are passed over for grants in favor of their male counterparts.

That’s not to say that all women experience severe sexism on a daily basis. I know quite a few women who are movers and shakers in STEM. Every month they seem to have won yet another award, grant, or fellowship. But again, there’s no denying that there’s still a strong bias against women.

I remember having to present some research to representatives of my funding agency, who just so happened to be two men in their fifties or sixties. The research was a collaborative effort between myself and a male colleague, but most of the grunt work had been done by me. That’s not to dis my colleague at all; in fact, he had approached me with the idea in the first place. But I had been the one in the trenches bringing it to fruition.

These two guys couldn’t believe that the project I was presenting was mostly my work. Maybe it was because of my age. At the time, I was exceptionally young to be at that particular rank. But I doubt their comment of “Oh, you mean you’re the assistant, right?” followed by condescending chuckling after finding out that I was in fact not an assistant but a full-fledged researcher would have been directed at me had I been a man.

We’ve made progress but there’s still a wage gap. Women have more choices, but we have to work harder to climb the professional ladder than men who have the same qualifications. We’re told to be assertive so no one pushes us around but are then called “crazy” for standing up for ourselves.

One time, I had a colleague try to bully me into doing everything his way. Eventually I learned to get a mouth (although that sometimes works to my disadvantage) and when the bullying intensifies, I decide it’s time to raise hell. And if they were going to take me down, I would go kicking and screaming.

Would that colleague still have done that to me had I been a man? Maybe. Maybe not. But from my own experience, girls are not encouraged as much as boys to be strong-willed and stubborn. Being a woman in STEM requires a great deal of tenacity and skin thicker than a 2-by-4. Everyone goes through a “proving period,” but be prepared for yours to take longer than normal.

But you know what? That’s ok. Prove you deserve to be there. Prove that you have a lot of valuable and insightful things to say. Right now, we have to work harder. Ok. That’s what we have to deal with. But the more we do and the harder we work, we make it that much easier for the generations who come after us.

Dig in your heels, baby. You got this. And you’ve got the support of women everywhere who want the same thing.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Fortuitous Screw-Ups, Acceptable Risk, and Heartless Machines

When life hands you lemons….trade them in for oranges, buy some vodka, and make yourself a screwdriver.

See what I did there?

Sometimes when life hands you a sucky situation, you take what you get and try to make something refreshing out of it (making lemonade out of lemons). The problem I have with that is even with the refreshing product you still get some of the residual suckiness of the primary constituent. For instance, when you take the sour lemons and squeeze the juice out of them, it’s still sour! I don’t care how much sugar you add to it, you’ll always taste some sourness.

But if life hands you something sucky and you figure out how to get rid of the suck factor and create a much more ideal situation – now that is pure genius! Lemon not your flavor? Get some oranges! Not in the mood for plain orange juice? Spice it up with some vodka! Then kick back and enjoy how your life just turned out until it drops another bomb on you.

Back in grad school, I was given a project on modeling organic materials. Let me give you some background information. Molecular modeling is the combination of chemistry and computers to study how a system behaves at the atomic level. In short, it’s a royal pain in the neck. But a very interesting pain in the neck. The hard part with modeling is that you have to provide every minor detail to the computer.

Let’s say I want to study butane (which is four carbon atoms “chained” together; the two end carbons each have three hydrogens attached to them and the two middle carbons each have two hydrogens). There are 3 carbon-carbon bonds (each one of which is single); 10 carbon-hydrogen bonds (also single); 2 carbon-carbon-carbon angles; 13 carbon-carbon-hydrogen angles; and 10 hydrogen-carbon-hydrogen angles. Then there are dihedrals, and I only have one thing to say about those:

Dihedrals=death.

It’s an angle with four atoms instead of three. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but I don’t like them and therefore don’t feel like talking about them because they have only caused me pain and misery in the past. Insert Taylor Swift’s song “Bad Blood.”)

All bond lengths and angles and their respective force constants need to be declared. Additionally, each atom type, its weight, and its partial charge need to be defined along with the order of bonding.

And that’s just setting up the system. For one molecule. That doesn’t include building a bigger system or running the calculation or analyzing the data from that calculation.

Like I said: royal pain in the neck.

In spite of all that, this field is extremely fascinating because you can actually watch the atoms from your model move and how they interact with each other. And you can also see how that affects the system as a whole. When I was given my project, I couldn’t wait to see what it would look like. It was a 100-atom molecule with mostly hydrogens and carbons but with two silicon atoms as well. There was a small glitch: there were two branches off the molecule’s backbone that contained a triple bond between two carbon atoms (which we call sp-carbon) and one of those carbons was bonded to silicon. The problem: no parameters existed in the force field we were using that described that interaction between sp-carbon and silicon.

Okay. No problem. Maybe another force field had those parameters.

Nope.

Okay. Maybe someone else studied this same system computationally and they were able to parameterize the system.

Wrong again!

Alright. Don’t panic. Let’s see if we can put the unit cell (a square with a molecule at each corner) into this software that does a bunch of complicated quantum mechanical calculations and will automatically parameterize the system.

The software can’t handle a system that size. Too bad!

Oy vey.

The only available option was to parameterize the system myself. Ok. Maybe that won’t be so bad.

Definitely wrong again! I was on a roll.

Long story short (though it may be too late for that) I was able to calculate my own parameters which involved stretching and compressing bonds and angles and finding the energy at each configuration. Because that’s the first thing that comes to every scientist’s mind when they need to model a 400-atom system. 😦

But that wasn’t even the project. That was just the first step to setting up the project! All that work wasn’t even worth a pamphlet much less a journal article.

Finally, after a few thousand calculations of varied unit cell configurations and mapping an energy profile and inserting a solvent, I had enough data for a thesis and two articles. (I’m not the first author but I have my name on papers in Nature Communications and the Journal of the American Chemical Society! To me, that’s huge!) In the end, I took the lemons I was given and made my screwdriver! (Please do not read anything dirty into that. Let’s keep this G-rated.)

Why am I telling you this mostly depressing tale of unfortunate events that culminated in a semi-important ending?

Because my story is not unique. This is the way of research. Complicated, discouraging, and full of setbacks with the occasional pick-me-up that yields something usable. Finally, you get enough usable work to gain some recognition within your community.

Yippee.

I like to think of research as a series of fortunate screw-ups. Someone did something of value but it wasn’t perfect. But it was SOMETHING. It was a step in a direction (maybe not even the right one) that someone else can build on. And really, it doesn’t even matter how close that person was to the right answer. Maybe they were in the ballpark. Or maybe they weren’t even in the parking lot! (Let us not forget the practice of bloodletting that was the method of choice for curing diseases. Again, insert Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.”) Still, someone else with some insight will come along and help set the scientific compass pointing that much closer to true north.

The scientific community has come under a lot of criticism, especially in the medical field, because we haven’t been able to find the perfect solution for every possible disease. One of the big controversies today is getting kids vaccinated. Yes, parents have a choice, and yes, there are POTENTIAL negative side effects, and yes, there are many who have suffered those side effects. And I do feel for them.

However, those side effects are not the majority, and vaccinations have done much more good than harm. It’s because of vaccinations that many diseases that were either life-threatening or severely life-altering either disappeared or were reduced in severity. And it’s the lack of vaccinations that has led to those same diseases making a comeback.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Science itself is infallible. Scientists, however, are not. We make mistakes. We can’t possibly account for every possible scenario, and things will go wrong. The useful products of scientific research are really the results of a series of fortunate screw-ups. And the only way to know if it will work is to try it out and see what happens. Sometimes, the results aren’t what we hoped for. And when that happens, we take what we have and try to get even closer to the right answer. It takes a lot of iterations, but each time we get closer, the results improve the quality of life even more.

I’m going to say something that is going to sound very heartless:

There is such a thing as acceptable risk.

Scientific advances are determined fit for public consumption after rigorous statistical analysis. And when it comes to statistics, majority rules. If the likelihood of introducing a new technology, therapy, drug, or procedure yields more pros than cons and it can make a profit, then you can bet it’s going on the market.

I know my comment of “it can make a profit” will spark some backlash. But here’s another secret: scientists need to eat too. We spend at least four years in undergraduate programs and at least five years in graduate programs, which are the only places in America that slavery is actually legal. Again, probably more backlash, but let me explain before you start screaming at your computer.

Graduate students exist at the pleasure of their advisers. They work in their adviser’s lab on a project funded by said adviser and are paid from that adviser’s funds. If the results aren’t up to snuff, you don’t graduate. There is no union to protect grad students. If you have to work 70-80 hours a week to get results for a project that may not even work, then that’s what you do if you want your degree. You’ll have health insurance and your tuition will be covered. You’ll make enough money to survive, but that’s about it.

And even once we get that coveted Ph.D., it’s still a long road before arriving at our dream jobs with the comfortable paycheck and amazing benefits that allow us to have homes and support families and send our children to college. We devoted at least a decade of our lives solely to intense education and research before moving above the poverty line. We earned that profit.

But going back to acceptable risk. As scientists, we have to be realistic. We have to acknowledge that each new invention, drug, etc. will have both risks and benefits. This is true for anything, even in life. Every choice made has pros and cons. There is no way to determine where the outcome will take you, but you adjust as necessary. The same with science. We try to find a safer way to drive cars, a better way to kill a cancerous tumor without destroying healthy cells, a more efficient way to store energy. For now, we can’t do it perfectly so we will just have to do the best we can and hope someone else will move us even farther forward.

One of my favorite movies is Extraordinary Measures with Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a business executive with a wife and three kids; two of those kids have Pompeii disease, a degenerative muscular disorder with a life expectancy of less than 10 years. He works with a scientist played by Harrison Ford to find a drug to help treat the disease. They are both upfront at the outset: the disease, right now, is incurable. However, it can be treated if a drug can be found.

Eventually, the two end up at a biotech company and Brendan Fraser and one of the head scientists get into an argument over procedure and protocol. Fraser accuses the scientist of being a “heartless machine” and the scientist tells Fraser that lack of emotion is necessary to finding a drug; otherwise, judgment is clouded, mistakes are made, and the results could do more harm than good. While I feel for Fraser’s character trying to save his kids’ lives, I have to side with the scientist on this one.

The point of science is to move society forward one step at a time. Sometimes it occurs in leaps and bounds as we’ve seen with the technological boom over the last twenty years. We analyze; we come to logical conclusions. We do consider the consumer and try to create a product that they would want; but many times that has to be secondary. We have to find the best solution, even if that solution has the possibility of negative consequences. From there, we can build even more.

It’s one thing to be passionate and excited about your work; it’s another to be driven completely by some emotional tie to your work. I worry about people who pursue careers because it’s what a relative did, or they want to find a cure for cancer because they were close to someone who died from it. It’s admirable to want to do something to honor a loved one. But more often than not, those people aren’t so much chasing answers as they are chasing ghosts.

Every bit of progress made is celebrated by scientists, in spite of the drawbacks. To us, we are reducing the setbacks from the previous attempt and moving asymptotically closer toward that screwdriver.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Big Data? Big Deal! No, Seriously.

One of my favorite classes to teach is programming. There are plenty of exercises to do in class and I can run the debugger so that students can see exactly how each step affects the calculation. The students, however, usually come into the class just trying to cross it off their list of required courses in order to move into their sophomore year.

Problem: Programming is not something you can just cross off a list. It’s a required skill in every STEM field. The major tech industries are built around people whose laptops are extra appendages to their bodies. Even if you are not planning to go into a tech industry but you still want to be in some STEM field, being able to manipulate a computer the same way Professor McGonagall manipulates her cat is essential. And because of that, I’ve had to get more creative with my approach to teaching programming, or else my influence over the classroom will decay faster than lithium radioactivity.

For some reason, though, many people approach computers as if they were wearing blast suits and preparing to dismantle a bomb. I know because that was me. When it came to computers, I wanted to throw up all over myself. My first project involved C++ programming….which I had to teach myself. To that point, the only skill I had on my resume related to computers was Microsoft. (Just a piece of advice: If you’re still bragging about your Microsoft skills on your resume or your LinkedIn page, people will think you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for skills.) Needless to say, every day of that internship, I went in to work on the verge of a panic attack.

Ah, the good old days.

But it really was a great experience. During that time, I learned a skill that laid the foundation for the next seven years of my career (and counting). Since then, I’ve learned to program in a few other languages and received an advanced degree based on that research. My approach to programming took a complete 180: the thing I swore I would never partake in became the focal point of my career.

I’m still not a star programmer. Some of the code I write looks like Sybil and Rain Man got together and had a baby, and that byproduct is doing the programming. But my goal is to build up those programming muscles as much as possible.

Why?

Two words: Big Data.

In today’s technological age, sorting through billions of data points to find trends and similarities allows techies to classify information and predict important outcomes such as the fluctuations in the stock market or, more importantly, if the Cubs will win another World Series. And it gives me ideas for class projects. 🙂

But in all seriousness, big data and machine learning are the new “big thing.” Predicting climate change, projecting business profits, categorizing cancer markers – big data and machine learning, baby. This all seems deceptively easy (because, let’s face it, a lot of this has been done or is currently being done), especially today when everything seems to just happen automatically. But sorting through data that’s arranged in the most helter-skelter way with no apparent pattern in sight (which, FYI, is the whole heart of programming) is like trying to find the perfect pair of blue suede pumps in the DSW clearance section: maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for after you’ve searched through every last box and deceived yourself into thinking that you’ll fit into a size 8 (even though you’re a size 9).

But most likely, you’ll have to go to another store (or two or three) on the other side of town to find what you’re looking for; however, even after all that, you may still have to compromise: settle for a purple suede pump in a size 9 to go with a different outfit or buy that blue suede pump in a size 8.5 that will go with your original outfit but be unnecessarily painful. (Let’s face it though: the entrance is the most important part of the evening. Once you get through the initial pleasantries and everyone’s noticed your perfect outfit, the shoes can be switched out with something more comfortable. Provided you had the foresight to bring an extra pair.)

There is actually a bridge between machine learning and my love of shoes, but you would have to navigate the cobwebs inside my head to see it. (Again, Rain Man and Sybil’s love child.)

Why the summary on the societal impact of big data and machine learning? It’s not so much to promote this challenging but stimulating field as much as it’s about accepting challenges. Marie Curie said that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy. In our automated society, it’s easy to lose sight of that axiom of wisdom and get discouraged when we first try something and it doesn’t work right away. I believe it was ASAP Science (my absolute favorite YouTube channel) who first tweeted, “If at first you don’t succeed, try two more times so that your failure is statistically significant.”

Usually it takes more than two or three iterations to see the desired results (I’m sure the cool dudes at ASAP Science know this). The oft-cited example is Edison’s 1000 trials before finally creating his incandescent lightbulb (which only burned for about 20 minutes).

We need to redefine our idea of success. In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, she describes the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is one that believes a person is born with certain talents and only those people can be successful in that particular area. A growth mindset believes that anyone can be successful in any area in which they choose to devote time and effort. Even those that have certain inclinations towards a particular skill need to further develop those skills (which requires more effort than people realize) if they want to continue to be successful in that area.

Developing the attitude of trying, screwing up, and repeating until your conditions are met (sorry, programming just sneaks into the conversation) is really more than half the battle. And the best way to do that: face situations that challenge you in all possible areas. The scary part about challenges is that they have a tendency to tear us down a bit (or a lot). They force us to be brutally honest with ourselves by pointing out our weaknesses and restructuring our priorities. Eventually we run out of pride and start to develop more of a devil-may-care attitude, the kind of attitude that gives us the freedom to take risks…for the fun of it. Imagine that!

The cycle of trying and screwing up is the way of both science and life. But ironically, those screw-up moments are not really failures; they’re setbacks. And even though they don’t achieve the desired results, they give us a better insight into the problems we face and a better approach to designing a solution. That is hardly failure.

To again quote the great Marie Curie: “We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

Well said, Professor Curie.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

For the Love of Science

I love science.

That should be fairly obvious; the freaking site contains the words “Chemistry Freak.” But I really, really love science.

In this day and age of technology and information literally at our fingertips, more and more people are beginning to realize that engineers and scientists really are geeks…but they’re really cool geeks. Heck, geek chic is now a fashion trend; people with 20/20 vision wear glasses just to look the part. I myself, with the vision of a bat (although their vision may not be as terrible as originally thought) decided after my last eye exam to buy two pairs of glasses and forego contact lenses. (However, part of that decision is due in part to returning to a laboratory setting where contact lenses are discouraged; lab safety rules rule, people.)

But the stereotype of nerds and computer geeks being the ones who are given wedgies and having their heads shoved in toilets by the “cool kids” (the ones who make up for lack of brains with a lot of swag) is dissipating. Learning to program a computer in elementary and middle school is now becoming an integrated part of the curriculum. Robotics competitions are held for 12-year-old students; kids are designing their own apps; and work opportunities at NASA, Intel, IBM, and Google are open to 20-year-old college students. Looking at this list I sometimes wonder why I wasted my early childhood on tea parties and Pretty Pretty Princess.

Why is there such a sudden draw to science and the tech industry? With the dawn of the Information Age, these fields have become less scary in the sense that they are more available to the masses. Physics is no longer just for “smart people”; it is for anyone with interest, drive, and passion. The concept of being born a genius or that only people who are born knowing how to do math can actually do math is starting to be exposed for what it really is: a condescending misconception. Guess what? No one is born knowing how to do things except scream, eat, sleep, and fill a diaper. Babies can’t even figure out toilets on their own much less the integral of the hyperbolic secant.

I remember mentioning to a colleague that I wanted to start a future faculty program at our university (something many other top institutions have initiated) to help guide those interested through the steps of writing easily-funded grants and solid papers in high-impact journals. His response: “The problem with that is then you have a massive influx of qualified faculty candidates; it stops being a rare thing to accomplish.”

Okay. Maybe he was referring to the fact that obtaining a faculty job is already super competitive since there are so few positions available each year. But even if that were the case, why is having an influx of qualified academics on the market such a bad thing? Even if they don’t have faculty jobs, they are still more than qualified to tackle industry or start their own companies. They have most likely published more papers and presented at more conferences and collaborated with more companies and universities than their industrially-trained counterparts. They have the contacts and the skill sets, the who and the what you need to know – the perfect roadmap to a great career.

I understand that the more rare something is the higher it’s value. But the more readily available something is the more advances can be made. Competition is a great motivator to completing a job; but working not just for the good of the individual but also for the good of the collective (my tribute to John Nash’s governing dynamics) can produce a more ideal win-win solution.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty competitive, not to mention possessive, person. I hate to share. My resume is stamped with the words “Doesn’t Play Well With Others.” I’d rather have a PAP smear done by Edward Scissorhands than let someone else work on my intellectual baby. But a lesson that I am still trying to force myself to learn (because in the long run it will be good for me, blah blah blah…) is that the less isolated the work, the greater its chance to blossom. Having other people involved in your ideas can take them to levels you never thought were possible.

 

And isn’t this the whole point of the Information Boom? To encourage more people to think for themselves and contribute those thoughts and ideas? Sir Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power. Three simple words that sum up the struggle for education that spans thousands of years. For the longest time only the wealthy could be educated (specifically wealthy men). Only within the last 150 years or so has education been made available to women, African Americans, and other minorities. And why have people pushed so hard to be educated?

Because it’s empowering. Because being informed allows you to form your own opinion of the world around you. And with that, you can take what the world has given you and find a way to leave your own imprint on it and make it a little bit better for the next generation.

But again, why has there been such a big push towards science in recent years? Could it be because science governs so much of our daily life? Or the fact that with every new discovery we find out there’s so much more we don’t know?

Science holds so many answers that have yet to be discovered. And from the many answers we’re fortunate to find we formulate more questions. Ben Franklin’s discovery of electricity in the 18th century eventually led to Edison’s incandescent lightbulb, Bell’s telephone, and Marconi’s radio in the 19th century. From these applications, the field of electronics boomed in the 20th century. The advent of computers revolutionized the scientific industry, and the invention of the integrated circuit turned the linear relationship between time and technology into an exponential curve. Taking those ideas and running with them, we now have technology in place that was only imaginative 20 years ago: smart phones; unmanned aerial vehicles; heck, the Internet which boasts Google, the world’s largest search engine, and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other websites (such as the one hosting all these delightful posts from yours truly).

And that’s only part of the story.

Michael Faraday discovered a new compound, eventually dubbed with the name “benzene,” shortly after inventing the electric motor. While benzene is carcinogenic, it is used in the synthesis of other compounds. For instance, fusing benzene rings together produces a new class of organic compounds called “acenes.” Napthalene (two fused benzene rings) is a component in mothballs. Pentacene (five fused benzene rings) is used in semiconductor; its derivatives are of particular interest as organic solar cell materials. While pentacene itself is not ideal for solar cells as the molecules do not stack in a way that encourages efficient charge transport, its derivatives, like 6,13-TIPS pentacene, are potential candidates for replacing silicon as the primary material for solar cells, a whole industry in its own right for promoting clean energy.

No field that comes to mind has been untouched by science. Even the materials used by artists are affected by current trends in scientific research, which opens the doors to people combining multiple passions into one booming industry.

All of these things we do for the love of science.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak