November 28, 2012

The End (of 2012).

I have felt punched in the gut lately. 

My mind and body have kind of been hibernating I think. I also feel very disengaged, which has been hard to get past. 

I've been reading Daring Greatly, Brene Brown's newest book. Ever since I saw her TEDxHouston talk, I've been a big fan and really think she's onto something with her work. Vulnerability may not be weakness and coming at things from a place of shame is certainly not the best way to approach living. Getting to that place though, is very difficult I'm finding. 

The title of the book derives from this Teddy Roosevelt Quote: 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." 

Inspiring words. I am trying hard to get into the arena, but don't feel like I'm one who's present  in the arena very often. 

In reading her book (I'm half way through), I keep reflecting back on times when I just haven't shown up in life. Too many to count. I do remember the night in middle school after a bad day where I was bullied (a recurring thing, from multiple people in my school career sadly) when I consciously decided to disengage; to go Vulcan in a way- never showing emotion if I could help it ever again. And I largely not present for many times since then. Being invisible works as a high school survival strategy (and later led to a pretty profound depression), but as Dr. Brown points out, it also means missing out on joy, love, innovation, change and boldness. That decision, accompanied by perfectionism really impaired my learning

I am now trying to dare greatly. And be more uncomfortable more of the time; it's where growth and learning take place. simply, I am trying to do something. I'm still not sure what it is I'm doing or what direction to go in, but more vulnerability can only be a good thing, even though it's hard. I hope I haven't gone too Vulcan; cold and logical without access to my emotions. Feeling like I'm 'enough' and lovable as is, is difficult for me to pull off. 

I know I have emotions, as they will come up strongly in this holiday season; they always do. Listening to a podcast on my long drive back from Thanksgiving weekend, I had a brief crying spell when I heard something that triggered an 'I'm alone' feeling in me; those get me every time. 

While the "Mayan Prophecy" (sarcastic quotation marks) predicts the world will implode in a few weeks, likely there will be a 2013. I hope it's a year when I dare even greater than this year (I have shown up a little more this year and made some small decisions. And I hope it's a year where Ian3.0 gets released. I'm learning to use a new computer just now. Is there something you want to do in 2013? Want to dare greatly with me? 

November 19, 2012


I'm going to tackle this topic even though I know it is polarizing. 

I read a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education today asking to scientists who support the theory of evolution to be kinder to creationists- and at least to not treat them like their idiots. Some of them clearly are not; you can present them the evidence for evolution and a creationist will just say 'I think there is a different set of facts' (no, there aren't, but I'm not here to convince anyone- I think it's futile to do so, people have to be convinced on their own, make their own discoveries). 

The thing I get confused about with creationism is that it seems like such a limited view of what God created with the universe (or even more than one universe, possibly). 

A scientist's job, through the empirical method, describes nature as well as they possibly can. Through that study, the evidence suggests that the universe is very old, 13,700,000,000 years old. That there are atoms made up of quarks and a whole host of other sub-atomic particles that are not obvious to the naked eye and zoom around at nearly the speed of light- 299,792,458 meters/second. These small particles and fields they represent make up everything in the universe. Life on Earth is ~2,000,000,000 years old, the Earth, 4,600,000,000 years old. The oceans formed, continents moved! Volcanoes erupted in massive and destructive explosions! Life has had myriad forms and dynamics over its history and we humans are a current incarnation of the mechanism of evolution, in a deeply philosophical sense, we are a way for the universe to know itself. Our brains have 83,000,000,000 neurons that form even more synaptic connections. Our bodies interact with microbes and other parts of the natural world- like plants!- that enables us to live and function on this Earth (all have DNA too- a rather elegant molecule for data storage). As humans, we've progressed far enough to be able to send the Voyager spacecraft to the edge of the solar system- 11,000,000,000 miles away! And there's a ton we just don't know or understand even still. Nature is complicated and doesn't yield secrets easily. The fact that our brains have comprehended as much as we have is impressive. 

This astounding complexity would make me say, if I were religious, 'Dear God, you created something incredible!!!! Far beyond what's written down in The Good Book!'. I am assuming that God, all-powerful, wouldn't allow us to know things we aren't allowed to know, of course.  

The numbers and mechanisms of the universe create a hugely richer picture of the universe than a 6,000 year old Earth with everything intact all of a sudden. The logistics of Noah's Ark boggle the mind if you consider the millions of species of animals out there (including the insects?). did he also take on all the plants of the world (250,000 flowering species alone- most wouldn't survive a flooded Earth)?

Is the more epic universe that science has painted a more uncertain place? Probably so. But therein lies the mystery and the frontiers of exploration. Living with uncertainty is hard (believe me, read previous posts here, uncertainty is quite difficult), but none of it means you can't still be a very decent person and do your part to make the world a better place. 

None of it precludes believing in a God it seems to me; It just deepens what God actually did in creating the universe. Staring at the night sky as a kid was one of the most inspiring things ever to me. And to realize that it's more ancient and grander than I even knew then, well, that's amazing! The part of the universe we're aware of constitutes ~4% of what's out there...96% is other stuff we have no idea about yet. 

So to the extent that I'm spiritual, the evidence of science suggests God did so much more than what's enumerated in The Bible- a book that gives some good guidance on how to behave in the world, not a manual for how the world goes, to paraphrase Galileo. 

I can get how the Renaissance Catholic Church would feel threatened by any view that wasn't what they said was 'how things are', but in 2012 in a democratic society, it seems like there's something else going on that makes creationists reject modern science (and in my mind, not give God his/her full due). And I must underscore, accepting a bigger vision of the universe in no way means you can no longer be religious, or a believer, or destroy one's faith. 

I'm sure people smarter and more articulate than I am have made a similar argument as I've outlined here, but I'm writing it again myself to get it out of my head- it's something I think about fairly often. 

My goal is not to convince anyone. I do think there needs to be a respectful voice in articulating our points of view and reasonable people can disagree. I do see how scientists (I feel this way too sometimes too) get frustrated when a whole community (like creationists) rejects what is overwhelming evidence that evolution happens; many scientists went out exploring nature and came back with natural selection as a mechanism for life to evolve. Evolution has had practical impact on all of our lives as well; from our crops we eat (selectively bred) to vaccines and antibiotics that kill harmful microbes, but spare us (by targeting things specific to the bacteria, not us- reflecting vast differences in DNA/cellular make up). Scientists don't come upon mechanisms of how nature works easily and we fight it out amongst ourselves until a theory emerges that stands up to most challenges (and even then, it continues to be challenged and refined). So to have our hard work rejected is hard to take, especially when it seems to a lot of us that we've uncovered some new piece of creation, that deepens our understanding of nature- making God, if you're religious- all the more impressive. 

So scientists often see limits to creationist thinking (it's all in that one book?); whereas scientists went directly to the primary source- nature itself. 

Scientists also tend to reject absolutist thinking. Science is a process, not an absolute way of knowing things, but a way to be more certain. We stare into the void often enough and get rejected by our methods of trying to understand what's going on so often that we realize anything we say comes with some level of uncertainty. Which makes scientific theories all the more impressive; Gravity, evolution, cell theory, The standard model, relativity, have all been vetted so thoroughly that scientists have accepted their veracity and continue to use them as a basis for experiments. 

That doesn't mean that scientists can be mean to creationists and belittle them (that will convince no one to come to accept evolution), but does explain why scientists have a hard time understanding a Creationist point of view- an absolute view oftentimes. When presented with evidence counter to a hypothesis we hold to be true, scientists do something remarkable; we change our minds- often slowly, but we do. 

November 18, 2012

Learning deeply.

I recently finished reading "What the Best College Students Do" and it fits in with what I've been writing about in my blog. I've had a few weeks since I finished it to think about it, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about how it might apply it to my own life as well as how this might impact my teaching practices and how I think about them. I am writing this from memory, so any content I talk about is what I am recalling (best way to review a book, almost certainly not).

The book is definitely not about how to get good grades. Ken Bain focuses a lot more on what he calls 'deep learning'. It is basically learning from a vulnerable and authentic place, a theme I've run across again and again in my readings this last year. 

This is contrasted with those he calls 'surface learners', who just learn what they need to get the grade or pass the exam. In other words, getting good grades to please someone else, not themselves. Sounds very familiar.

The profiles of 'deep learners' in the book include a lot of very prominent people, including Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson (two of my favorite people), but also other people who are not as well know but who he considers to be deep learners. What they all have in common is a curiousity about the world and a particular perspective and passion they found to follow through with. I found myself wishing I had that kind of clarity when I was younger. Sadly, I, like many others, were fixated on doing well in school as an end. Of course, that's not really the point of getting an education. 

The book starts off with a course taught at a college in Texas called 'integration of abilities' that sounds like it would have been torture for me to go through. The whole idea was to get in touch with the rhythms of your own mind, perceive the world in multiple ways, break things down and build them up again. Basically getting in touch with what matters to you, linking your interests in disparate things together. From there, you go off and learn what you need to do to succeed. 

In the book, he highlights research about having a 'growth mindset' as opposed to a 'fixed mindset' (the former is far superior I'm learning in my own life now). Bain also goes through studies of how the brain best learns, what is a good use of our time (reading, writing, e.g.) and having self-compassion (basically accepting things that happen, not ripping yourself apart, and moving on). 

In sum, I would say the best college students take a Bayesian approach. They incorporate new data, new knowledge into their current model of the world. All these people also seem to take chances and be very self-assured. They also try, fail, try again and learn from their errors. They embrace failure as a way to learn. Almost the opposite of perfectionists.

As for how this will affect how I teach, or create the learning environment for students, I think it is a challenge to create a deep learning environment. But there are some things I will incorporate such as giving students chances for ungraded trial and error before a graded task is assigned. Also, having students keep a journal of their class appears beneficial as well. However, I think there are limits to what individual teachers can do; there do need to be cultural and institutional shifts that focus less on tests and more on truly measuring learning (the two aren't necessarily the same thing). 

In my personal life, this is the message I've been trying to incorporate into my mind for the last year. Be vulnerable. Embrace failure. Try and try again. Do new things as much as possible. Ask whether you learned something new each day. Take chances. Bomb and realize that it's not that bad; it is survivable. I still feel like I'm trying to find what I truly care deeply about, or at least need to get out from under the large amount of shame I carry around with me most days which really does drive my disconnection from the world (I'm reading up on this more- reading Brene Brown's book 'Daring Greatly'). I really want to come in from the cold and am slowly wending my way back into connecting and possibly learning deeply.

November 11, 2012


I have a limited amount of energy. 

A lot of my effort this year has been in trying to find things that energize me more. Finding what motivates me to keep going. Finding what makes me tick. I've found some successes this year:

  • I have hung this on my wall to remind me to appreciate life and to keep creativity, passion and ideas in mind as I tend to go on autopilot a lot.
  • I've become an avid reader of Lifehacker, though I may have overdosed on it a bit. A lot of the posts there really have helped me form some new productivity (learning keyboard shortcuts for many things! So cool!) habits as well as new ways of thinking.
  • I've read a lot more books recreationally than I have in a long time as well. Most influential has been Quiet by Susan Cain. I have been reading more about and exploring introversion a lot more this year and finding ways in which I can embrace my nature- I'm as introverted as they come. I feel defective in social situations a lot of times. It's better to know that I just socialize differently and that there isn't something fundamentally wrong with the fact that I only switch on when topics I care about deeply come up (Han shot first!!!). I have taken advantage of every speaking opportunity I've had this year, which I think has helped me be more comfortable around people. None of them went that well. It's sort of like the standup comedian who bombs, lives, and goes on the next night anyway, more fearless than before- at least I hope it's like that.
  • I took a few tentative steps to learning new things. Brewing beer, coding (a very few steps there), and even pushing myself again in my work, which unfortunately I haven't done enough of the last few years; I think that's the most devastating part of being clinically depressed. Luckily, I seem to continue to become more aware of when my depressive thinking comes up and can manage it a lot more effectively than I once did. It's still there, but does occupy less of my mind. And I can fight it. I had a pretty bad setback in my research a month ago and had a lot of other things going on too, but despite that huge negative, I seem to have bounced back OK. I didn't just give up.
  • I have learned to say no more. And yes. I've said yes more often the last few months than I have all year. I hope all this new input into my brain will lead to me feeling less stuck.
  • I'm learning to use Twitter to network and interact more with the online science community, which seems to be thriving. Almost to the point I often feel that writing my own account of my experiences as a scientist just don't belong on the internet (just because it's written down doesn't mean it's worth reading or is even a legitimate voice). I'm writing anyway, mostly for myself because I actually find it fun to use my words (however ineffectively). As I've said in this blog before a few times I think, I serve as an example of what not to do as a postdoc/grad student; for changing my own habits as well as for anyone that reads what I write and is helped by it (I can dream). I consider myself an educator and I take my undergrad university's motto to heart: 'Not unto ourselves alone are we born'.
  • I recently joined a running club, which is changing up my routine a fair bit as well. I went for an 8 mile run on election day morning in below freezing temperatures. I never would have done that on my own, but might now that I've done it once. It is also a social activity/group which is good for me. 

So inch by inch I am clawing my way up from the bottom of the canyon I was in. If I keep it up, I can declare I've made it to the top and stand on the canyon ledge and declare the arrival of Ian 3.0. This will involve doing more: reading, writing, applying, experimenting, learning, trying, failing, trying again, and persevering into a new and better place (mentally, if not physically). 

I hope all of that will lead to an increased energy budget and to more effectively using my time for the things I care about. 

November 1, 2012


I study plants. Sessile organisms that grow in a particular environment. They put down roots and develop in the most optimal way for their environmental conditions. 

In graduate school, I had a joke about how various PIs showed characteristics of the organisms they studied. The Drosophila PI flitted about like a tiny fly would, the C. elegans lecturers were like the nematodes they studied...most boring lecturers ever. the lecturuers who worked on mice were very mouse-like. Is your PI like the model organism they work on? Since I haven't spent a lot of time with yeast, I'm not exactly sure how a human would be Yeast-like, but I'm sure they're out there. 

Now I'm wondering if I'm a plant. I do seem to be rooted in place, and worst, I'm a plant that hasn't been allowed to grow. I'm like a severe mutant, impaired in some way trying to figure out how to 'make it'- and hopefully I can live out a normal life. 

I'm also still trying to find the sun so I can thrive. I don't think I'm in the optimal environment, but any plant that grows in a marginal place must adapt to that, whereas an animal can get up and walk away.

I can walk. And run. But I still feel rooted in place. And stuck. Some of it I'm sure is this, the ultimate career pressure to succeed and I just haven't performed. They aren't the conditions for me to best succeed. I'm not sure what conditions are best for me, but certainly not one where perfectionism is a default option. 

Growth has been on my mind a lot this year (look at past posts, that I'm still not good at citing within my blog- I'm still an amateur when it comes to this interwebs stuff). 

I think I'm doing better at pushing my comfort zone, though I don't see much magic happening. Maybe it's starting. I am a lot more curious again than I used to be. Things actually interest me again; which wasn't really the case a year ago, though apathy is still all too present in my life. I did raise $343 for the local cancer center a few weeks ago, which is something I don't think I've ever done before, so I am proud of that. In some ways, I am waking up again and actually living rather than just coasting through like a zombie. 

Is it enough? I don't think so. Not yet. I still have a lot to work towards, and need to get more organized. about everything and set my goals to be achievable and accountable. I am expressing myself more and am more accepting of who I am (introverted is my most prominent personality trait). 

I have applied for some jobs this year, none of which I'll get, but I did it anyway. I think I understand networking a lot better now, even if I'm not that good at it still. 

I will have made 3 batches of beer this year as well. 

Signs of growth? I sure hope so. Am I a plant who will make it to a new environment? Or do I get to truly launch Ian3.0 this year? I don't know, but maybe I took a few steps towards that.

So the growth continues. Hopefully I nurture myself well enough to thrive in the near future.