Mid-Sabbatical Doldrums — April 9, 2021

Mid-Sabbatical Doldrums

Here in mid-April, I’m closer to the end of my sabbatical than the beginning. I have made progress toward nearly every goal. I’ve made ligands, and I tried once to make an Al complex. (More attempts there are coming next week.) I’m attending the ACS meeting and other interesting talks. I’m working on the revisions for the silver cyanoximate lab paper. I’ve tuned the NMR to platinum-195 and learned to calibrate the pulse width. I’m reading Talking about Leaving Revisited and having interesting conversations about it. We took the kids to the zoo. And yet, I’m hitting a bit of a wall. I’m getting a little sluggish, not nearly so motivated as before. I’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and in doing so have already exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations of myself. In a way, everything that I’ve done up until now has been mostly preparation and preamble. Now is the time to dig in to the actual work. Why am I resisting the work? Probably because of the old reasons, namely that it might fail. The paper might get rejected in spite of my revisions. Making the Al complexes is going to take work and focus and a lot of running around getting supplies. It might not work. And even if I get that to work, I might not be able to get the Pt side to work. I might waste my time and chemicals. I might get tired.

But by writing this I recognize that using fear to justify inertia isn’t helping anyone, least of all me. One of my goals was to feel like a scientist, and scientists don’t let the fear of failure keep them from trying.

Time to plan some more experiments. I’ve got this.

Reflections on Teaching in the COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year In. — March 15, 2021

Reflections on Teaching in the COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year In.

In a recent Facebook group thread, my colleagues were reflecting on how it’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to do our work as teachers in totally new ways. Most of those who posted on the thread had positives things to say about learning new technologies and how it’s transformed their teaching.

This is not that story.

I feel the need to reflect on my own experience, mainly to assuage the sense of inadequacy that I feel about my pandemic response. I’ll say upfront that I do not think I am a better or stronger or more insightful teacher. I think I survived. But barely, teetering on the edge of total burnout. I kept fighting only because I knew I had this sabbatical on the horizon.

But back to the beginning.

The best thing I did at the beginning of the pandemic was to spend the majority of two whole class periods talking with my students, especially my general chemistry students, about their concerns and fears. In the moment, I was tempted to ignore the issue, to press forward with the plan our syllabus outlined, but I resisted the urge, and I’m glad of it. In those moments, I gained the trust of my students. That trust kept us going the rest of the term.

The early days of the shutdown were hard, but the adrenaline of an emergency propelled me. I made videos for my students to watch and a schedule for when to watch them. I slashed assignments and added flexibility. I wrote open-book/open-notes exams that I’m proud of, that were cheat-resistant. I held office hours every day at the same time so that both the students and my family could have that anchor of schedule but without having to remember what day of the week it was.

In those days, I got up around 5 AM so that I could get a few hours of work in before the kids woke up. Most of my videos were recorded in the darkness of spring mornings. My husband and I traded off so that we could each make progress on our goals and still keep the kids from hurting themselves. The little one had just turned one; he was dangerously mobile, getting into everything. The bigger one was three, longing for attention and control; lonely without other kids and only a baby for a brother. But it wasn’t terrible. Like everyone else, I cooked to stave off the depression. I picked tiny weeds out of the garden. I cried in the bathroom.

What I didn’t do was check on our elderly friends and neighbors. I didn’t make any masks for the hospital. I tried, but the time I had for working on masks was spent watching kids or working. I didn’t make sourdough because we were short on flour at the beginning. I rationed our supply for about two months until we could get more. (We did have toilet paper because I had bought extra when the in-laws came March 1. At that time, I remember buying extra hand soap and hand sanitizer. I forgot flour, to my chagrin.)

In summer, I felt the weight of depression as the pandemic dragged on. It took all of June to rest enough to feel happy again. July was okay as I leaned in to my role as stay-at-home mom. But the spectre of August was always there.

August. Even now, I feel a little gut wrench as I think about the coming of the fall term. The problem with the fall is that by August, the worst of the crisis felt over. My husband’s employer was basically expecting normal work. The College was expecting extraordinary work. The expectation was a hybrid/synchronous/totally flexible course, completed in double time. It was different because “we all had time to think and prepare this time.” Except–I want to scream–we didn’t all have time to think and prepare this time. I feel so angry when I think about how big the task was and how few resources I had to work with.

In my inorganic course, I had to make some hard choices because I knew I wouldn’t have time during the day to prepare. During the mornings, I helped the big one struggle through her online preschool. Then, I rolled into my office in just enough time to be physically present for my class. I put them in groups and made them talk because I knew I couldn’t be counted on to prepare anything for them. I jettisoned the Just-in-Time-Teaching pedagogy that is so integral to who I am as a professor because I knew I wouldn’t have time to answer their questions. I am ashamed of how disorganized and disconnected my lectures were. I am ashamed at how little I connected with that cohort. I couldn’t let my students get close to me because I didn’t have time or emotional energy for them. I survived, but barely. They survived, but their standardized exam scores show that they didn’t learn as much as they usually do.

The one good thing I tried was specifications grading. I switched to credit/no-credit exam questions and online exams. These saved me on grading time and made student progress really clear. I think the seed of this idea is something I will keep.

The second class, General Chemistry II was better, in part because the big one had real preschool for 4 weeks. And because much of what I used in the spring could be recycled. And because teaching general chemistry is easier than teaching inorganic chemistry. Gen chem is so much more concrete and systematic. So I survived. But there was no excellence there. And the worst part is that my students poisoned themselves. Somewhere around week 5 of 6, they decided that they were not learning anything. They gave up. And I just waited for it all to be over.

I don’t know what I’m going to do if the fall term doesn’t look something like 2019. I don’t know if I can do it again. I’m not more flexible. I’m not more organized. I’m not a better teacher for this experience. I feel like the pandemic is one of the great tests of my life, and I have failed to adapt. I am surviving but not thriving.

Vaccination, Step 1 — March 4, 2021

Vaccination, Step 1

Got my first does of (Moderna) COVID-19 vaccine today. It’s cute to think about my ribosomes reading the mRNA and making the little spike proteins. I am happy to be on my way to being able to do social things again.

The public discourse about vaccination is so mixed. I feel some sympathy for the concern that there may be unanticipated long (or short) term effects that render the vaccines worse than the risk of COVID. We try to evaluate risk on the basis of probability x severity. In the case of vaccine harm, the probability is so low. Granted, the probability of a healthy 35-year old getting a bad case of COVID is also pretty low, but the potential severity of both of those events is reasonably high. With the knowledge I have now, vaccination seems to be the best option in my judgement.

Sabbatical Goals 7 and 8 — February 25, 2021

Sabbatical Goals 7 and 8

My final two goals need some work:

  • Learn something new
  • Do fun things with the kids.

So for learn something new, I originally had in mind that I would take an art class at the Art Center or teach myself to make bread or take a Feldenkrais class. I’m having trouble actually committing to any of these. One of my excuses is timing. I have to do them in the evenings or weekends when I want to be with my family. Another is COVID. Now, by this point we are starting to find ways of doing normal things, but I’m having a little trouble getting past the idea that we have to be at home and isolated all the time. Yesterday, I talked to a friend who was telling me about taking an online training on being a cancer consumer-reviewer for grants because she’s a mathematician who is living beyond cancer. What a great way to use her rare intersection of skills and experiences! So what can I find like that? This one is a work in progress, and I need to come back to it to refine.

I’m also not doing great about “doing fun things with the kids.” I got an opportunity to do fun things with the kids between February 10 and 18 when we were iced/snowed in, and I didn’t really take it. Sure, we made cookies and a pillow fort, but I never lost myself in playing with them because I was thinking about lost time. I had in mind that we would go to the zoo or the aquarium, but I also want this goal to extend to our ordinary evening and weekend times.

So maybe a piece of this goal is that I want to get better at work-life integration. I like the word integration because both are part of me and because I need to make them part of a peaceful and coherent whole. I’ve read about Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying that being a parent made her a better law student and later a better lawyer. She set aside time between 5 and her children’s bedtime to focus on them before she went back to work. At this point in my life, I’m a worse professor because I’m a parent, and I’m a worse parent for being a professor. I really struggle to switch “off” of work at the end of the day. I grimace a little when we get home and I’m inundated by their requests while I’m trying to make dinner. And then we have to fight through bath and bedtime to get everyone to sleep. I feel like I have to conserve all of my energy in order to be able to parent them that I never get to just play with them.

So this goal is about resetting those professor/parent/spouse/person boundaries at a new phase in my career and in my parenting journey. I think maybe I need a “shutdown” ritual before I leave my office each day. Perhaps I’ll try setting aside 10 minutes at the end of the day to think about what happened today, to write out the plan for tomorrow, to decide what the dinner plan will be, to enjoy the silence, and to look forward to an evening of giggles with my favorite tiny people.

Sabbatical Goals 5 and 6 — February 23, 2021

Sabbatical Goals 5 and 6

Continuing our list of sabbatical goals:

  • Read books about diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM.
  • Feel like a scientist again.

I’m already working on Goal 5. In January, I read Equity in Stem by Julie R. Posselt. In the book, she provides several case studies for how to think about equity in science graduate programs. Some takeaways I had (in no particular order):

Redefine selection criteria for graduate admissions to highlight the skills that are actually important rather than easily quantifiable. The book included a lot of discussion about whether the GRE is a good metric for graduate school admissions. I agree with the authors that the GRE is not a good metric. Neither is GPA, really, because it depends on the school. I like the idea that we would look for evidence that students are interested in science and that they challenge themselves. Research experience is also a good indicator, and so at the undergraduate level, I want to think about how more students will be able to showcase research skills.

Grow diversity by putting historically underrepresented groups at the center rather than the margins. The author compare efforts to increase diversity in a department. In one example, the department recruited a lot of “diverse” students but didn’t offer support services. I admit that I’m not quite sure what support services those students would have needed, and the author didn’t elaborate. But I can imagine that students who might be working through stereotype threat need supportive mentoring that comes to them instead of “I’m here if you need me.” In the other department, the faculty hired new faculty who were “diverse” but whose research interests were at the center of the department’s strengths and interests. The new faculty thrived because they became integral to the department rather than isolated at the periphery.

Empower staff members as “cultural translators” and listen when they bring up issues. People in non-professor roles have important but often undervalued interactions with students. Make them part of the team instead of part of the machine. In the context of undergraduate education, I see this as a need for faculty to be able to connect with other dimensions of student life like athletics and residential life. On the one hand, it’s easy to get information overload, but on the other hand, we could support students by reinforcing the same messages.

Next, I’m reading Talking about Leaving Revisited which is edited by Elaine Seymour and Anne-Barrie Hunter. This tome showcases some fascinating ethnographic research at six different institutions about patterns of student switching, persisting, and relocating within STEM majors. I’m early in this one, but so far, it’s fascinating to see data to help evaluate some hypotheses. For example, there is support for the notion that students are leaving STEM because they find other majors more interesting. There is also support that they’re being driven out of STEM by a competitive culture and by poor teaching.

Goal 6 is “Feel like a scientist.”

One of the less well-defined goals of the bunch, but I’m achieving it. Yesterday, my product (one of the PDI ligands) came out as a yellow oil that was clearly the right compound but contaminated with starting materials. After some literature digging, I found a report that putting the product in the freezer for a bit and then adding methanol might do the trick. So this morning, I got the flask out of the freezer, started triturating with a little methanol, scratched the bottom of the flask to make some nucleation sites, and sure enough, yellow solid started growing on the scratches and continued through the whole sample. Very satisfying. I didn’t take pictures because I just lived it instead.

The NMR showed that the solid was still contaminated with starting material and perhaps a mono-substituted side-product. So I recrystallized from methanol, including a hot filtration step. It’s been a long time since I got to dig in to a reaction like that. I’m not a super skilled synthetic chemist, but I kept at it this time and yielded beautiful yellow needles. I’m hanging on to this small victory for the next hurdle.

P.S. I submitted the silver cyanoximate paper today. It feels like such a risk. What if the editor rejects it? Well, I’ll just keep making it better until it comes round right.

Sabbatical Goals 3 and 4 — February 9, 2021

Sabbatical Goals 3 and 4

The next two sabbatical goals are:

  • Read a journal article every (work) day.
  • Submit silver cyanoximate paper.

I’ll admit I’ve already failed at my goal to read a journal article every day. It’s been coming in spurts, so I might have averaged a paper per day, but I haven’t kept the letter of the law on this one. My intention behind this goal is that I would dig in to what’s going on in the science world in general and the inorganic chemistry world in particular now that I’ve been “away” teaching for 8 years. Now that the spring term has started, and I’m turning my focus more toward Goals 1 and 2, it may be easier for me to get back on this train. I’ve tried using feedly to keep track of ASAPs, but it’s not working. I might need another way of organizing this goal.

Ah the silver cyanoximate paper. Years ago, some friends and I designed a lab experiment. We were going to write a paper about it. I wrote a manuscript and then had a baby. And then another baby. So it’s been 5 years and I’m finally getting around to writing this one. I believe in this project more than ever. So far, I’ve reproduced the synthesis again and gone over the manuscript again. Last week, I sent it out to my collaborators, and I am getting both encouragement and helpful feedback. This one is actually going to happen. I admit that I have some trepidation related to submitting an article and getting reviewer feedback. (What if they don’t like it? What if I missed something?) But what I learned in my last paper is that I can work through the feedback systematically and make the paper better. If I can revise a paper on maternity leave, I can surely do it now.

Sabbatical Goals 1 and 2 — January 21, 2021

Sabbatical Goals 1 and 2

First two goals for sabbatical are:

  1. Synthesize some ligands.
  2. Try coordinating ligands to aluminum.

These two goals relate to some collaborative research that I’m trying with my friend Tim. He’s interested in aluminum complexes. I just want to get back into the lab.

My plan is to make a Hammett series based on the pyridinediimide and pyridineimide scaffolds. So these are my first targets. Not to worry, these are known to the literature.

Apparently these are made by condensation reactions of amines and aldehydes or ketones, which will expand my meager organic chemistry toolbox.

So this week, I looked up syntheses and ordered chemicals. I tried adding just one R-group to each imine phenyl ring, but I’m keeping the possibility of multiple substitutions in my mind. I’ll start when the reagents get here, assuming that the research lab is put back together after the pipe-freezing-incident at the beginning of the new year. I see that it is easy to get caught up in the planning of a reaction instead of the doing of a reaction. I remember this problem from graduate school. In my head, this plan looks wonderful, but the real experience is messier and harder.

Goal #2 is to attempt to make aluminum complexes with these ligands. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do this here at Centre given the lack of glovebox. I might be able to collaborate for a glovebox or think about how to do this with a Schlenk line. We’ll see. But I want to try at least once on my own.

Sabbatical 2021: Getting Started — January 14, 2021

Sabbatical 2021: Getting Started

Good news! From yesterday, really, until the fall term begins in August, I’m supposed to be “free” of teaching and service responsibilities so that I can “focus” on my scholarly work. Why the air quotes? Because I love teaching and don’t necessarily want to be away from it. And because focus is hard when there are so many other things going on at my house and in the world. I am grateful that my kids now both have places to go during the day so that I can do this work.

My goals for sabbatical:

  1. Synthesize some ligands.
  2. Try coordinating ligands to aluminum.
  3. Read a journal article every (work) day.
  4. Submit silver cyanoximate paper.
  5. Read books about diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM.
  6. Feel like a scientist again.
  7. Learn something new.
  8. Do fun things with the kids.

Clearly, these goals could use some work. They need some specifics and some deadlines or progress points. It also feels like there might be too many of them for the time between now and August, but I’m committed to doing what I can and forgiving myself for what gets left undone. I’m also going to try blogging again. Over the next few days, I’m going to go a little deeper into each of these goals for myself. In part, I’m doing this so that I have someone to talk to. It’s pretty lonely around my office in CentreTerm and social-distancing requirements make it harder to check in with other people.

Today’s observations:

  • It’s nice to have some free, open time.
  • It’s easy for other people (e.g. advising) to take your free, open time.
  • It’s easy to waste free, open time by shopping for clothes on the internet.
  • The lab is very far from my office, and I keep forgetting things in one place or the other.
Resistance and Feelings of Inadequacy — April 5, 2018

Resistance and Feelings of Inadequacy

Today in the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv message was something I needed to hear.  The article is called “Track Your Resistance” and the author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, describes a method for acknowledging all of the things that make us resist sitting down and actually doing our scholarly writing.

I need to read more of Rockquemore’s work on resistance, but it hit me today that all of my angst and feelings of inadequacy about my scholarly work are my version of resistance.  And apparently, these feelings are normal manifestations of the fear of failure.  I’ve been honestly thinking that I’m just not good enough, that my work is too obscure, that I can’t be a good scholar/teacher/professor.  I think I see through Rockquemore’s post that my angst is still imposter syndrome.

I am good enough, and I’m the only one who can tell me so.

On my summer list is to actually work on writing papers for one hour per day.  I think strategy will help me deal with the monsters inside my head.

Acorns — March 16, 2017


Mighty oaks from small acorns grow.

Sometimes I get sidetracked by all of the meetings and the checklists and the hoops to jump through.  I forget that I’m really in the oak tree business.  Or more specifically, I’m in the oak tree business, but I work with the acorns.  First and foremost, I am a teacher.

The hard part about working with acorns is that I don’t always get to see how they turn out as trees.  It can be exhausting to give so much emotionally and see so little progress.  And some acorns don’t want to do the work it takes to transform into mighty oaks.

But it’s worth it anyway.