Saturday, January 31, 2015

You're not finished with me yet...

Hello out there - it's been a while.  More than a year, in fact.  

Grad school has a tendency to take over everything, and while I find my work interesting and challenging, it's not the sort of narrative that I feel called to share at this point.  In deference to how this blog began, searching for starfish means paying attention to my work, and that has meant (and will probably continue to mean) that my posts will be limited.

I never intended to shut this operation down, and I still don't intend to, but the one who invited me to begin blogging is now inviting me deeper inward.  In addition to school, which would be plenty to stand in the way of writing, there is this bigger piece, the story I do feel called to share, and that's the part I have a hard time articulating right now.

I had a professor in undergrad who told us that all we could say about God was that, "God is," and that even that was saying too much.  Because every box I try to put God in, God blasts right through it and insists on not being contained.

We learn in quantum mechanics that confinement leads to quantization, that discreteness arises from containment.  God is in everything, refuses to be rationed out, but instead shows up to all of us everywhere.  And what does that mean for us?  I chew on ideas such as these as I ponder the more "practical" applications of my science.

And perhaps all that I can say is this: as I continue to show up to my education, I come to know and love a God who first knew and loved me, who has gifted us with a beautifully interesting universe and filled it with beautiful people.  

I also wanted to make this hiatus "official" because I know that I will be preparing for my oral exam in the summer.  I have to pass this exam in order to qualify for PhD candidacy.  If you're a pray-er, I would ask for your prayers this semester and into the summer as I navigate this next part of the journey.  

And know that all of you, wherever you are, you have my prayers, too.  

Peace and all good,

Monday, January 13, 2014

Never refuse a kindness.

At the end of my time at the Welcome Center, the sisters wanted me to tell them what I had learned.  I had some ideas, and I shared them, but in the back of my head, I knew that more lessons were coming.  The motto of our program, "One year to change a life," carries with it the imperative that the learning never stops.

Sr. Eileen was my direct supervisor while I worked in Philadelphia.  She is a social worker by training, and she is the director of the Welcome Center.  She helps people access particular services that they need and walks with people as they navigate new situations.  This is her "job description," but what she does every day goes far beyond that.  Over the course of my year, I noticed that if anyone offered to help, Sr. Eileen would make sure that there was something for them to do.  She is wonderful at inviting people to participate in the ministry of the Welcome Center in whatever way that they are able.

Moreover, she tried to teach this to me.  One day at the Welcome Center, I had a bunch of things that I needed to store while I was at work.  We were discussing where they might go, and I was gathering myself to bring them all downstairs.  Sr. Eileen offered to help me bring them downstairs, but I was feeling especially independent at that moment, so I told her I would do it.  The polite back and forth ensued, and it ended with her saying to me (of something she had learned in her SSJ training), "Never refuse a kindness."

All of that was rolling around in the recesses of my brain when one of my students from last semester stopped by my office today.  We spoke of the upcoming semester, and I told him that I would be teaching freshmen this time around.  He offered me his old labs from general chemistry so that I would have a better foundation for grading these students (having the answers and all).

Neurons fired in my brain at light speed: "it's general chemistry, how hard could it be?" "they give me a rubric, it won't be so difficult" and "I don't really need more things to clutter my desk."  All of that was ultimately pushed aside by remembering this: "He wants to help.  Let him help you."

Sr. Eileen's words have allowed me to understand something fundamental: people will bring you what they have.  Even if it is not what you want or need or expect, accepting what they offer with open and loving arms is the most important thing you can do for them.  Welcoming each person as they are lets them know that they matter, and that is a key part of being Christ for others.

I haven't received these lab reports yet, but when I do, I will be sure to smile and and thank my student.  Having those papers will serve to remind me that even if I already know all the chemistry on them, there is still more learning to do.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

If they learn nothing else this semester...

To my students,

I know that it is extremely hard to keep showing up to problems that you don't understand.  (It might not be obvious to you, but I struggle plenty with my own coursework.  It comes with the territory.)  We choose our paths in life (and they choose us), at least in part, because we are good at what we do.  For example, as much as I would joke about joining the circus as an undergraduate (which was often), realistically, I would be a terrible fit for the circus.  My body doesn't move like that, and I'm not really into animals.  But that's beside the point.

When you start learning science, the path is fairly well traveled.  Many people have gone before you, and there is a clear indication of where you ought to go next.  Study {science} in college.  Learn as much as you can.  Do research.

For a while, people will know the answers to the questions you ask, but as you keep going, the path will branch out and bottleneck.  There will be fewer and fewer people who have gone before you, until you find yourself at the edge of science.

I have a great deal of admiration for Robert Frost, but this letter is not about the "road not taken."  Research is about the road that doesn't exist yet.  When we reach the end of the path we are on, we must keep building the road and connect it to other roads.  A road isn't as profitable if it dead ends; the major thoroughfares are what everyone wants to be responsible for creating.  Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes, it isn't. 

Even the best scientists won't know exactly what will happen next, 100% of the time (heck, even quantum mechanics will only give you probabilities!).  The soil that you will build on may be clay, or shale, or full of sand.  The problem might seem overwhelmingly simple at the outset, but complications may prolong completion.  The alternative may come to pass: it could begin as a huge mess that simplifies drastically as you proceed.  Most of what you do will be, I hope, somewhere in the middle.  Not understanding how to get to the endpoint right away doesn't make you a bad scientist.  Choosing not to understand, however, means that you will never get any further than you already are.  

My job is to help you get comfortable with building those roads, to practice troubleshooting.  To develop your scientific intuition.  To embrace Murphy's Law as the fifth Gospel, and then to move beyond it.

This class is just as important as other, more "relevant," classes that you'll take.  Here is why: this class is helping you to be more comfortable making connections between things you know and things you don't know.  That is the general idea behind all that you will do in research.  You learn about the world, and you use what you already know to draw conclusions about what you don't yet understand.  And then you see what happens.  

You have a person with only marginally better "eyesight" leading you through all of this.  It is non-trivial to show up to your own education and say, "this is going to be hard, but I am going to learn something from this, and that knowledge motivates me to keep on keeping on."  That attitude is precisely what binds me, covalently, to my education.  I might get excited by stray photons, but, as we recently learned in lecture, there are a number of ways to relax to the ground state.  And, as one of my professors in undergrad told us (about tunneling and bound states): you always get out eventually.

With respect and best wishes,

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A chip off an old block...

When I first moved to Philadelphia, we didn't have a coffee pot.  I didn't mind, because I wasn't in the habit of drinking coffee, but one of my housemates was all about coffee.  We bought instant coffee to tide her over until we could obtain a coffee pot, which happened relatively quickly.  Thus, we had a lot of leftover instant coffee.  What to do?

That general idea (having things and needing to re-purpose them just a little, with somewhat limited resources) resulted in the following recipe, adapted from this recipe.  The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive in both Philadelphia and Rochester, so I thought I would share it with y'all.  Since this isn't a food blog, I don't have pictures like the real dedicated folk.  Sorry!  I will try to be as clear as possible. =)

Rachel's Cafe Cookies 
(Scientists are all about naming things after themselves, and I really couldn't think of a better title.  If you come up with one, I'll happily oblige you!)

2 cups brown sugar, softened
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
3 cups all-purpose flour (wheat is equally good and adds a nutty flavor; you can add some of each, to total three cups, if you like)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons instant coffee (dry)
1/2 to 1 cup instant oatmeal
2 to 3 cups chocolate chips (to be fair, I never am exactly sure how much chocolate goes in - I really ballpark this.  I also will often use dark chocolate chips, and the ones that I've bought are larger than "normal" size chocolate chips.  Ultimately, that results in larger cookies.)

1.  Preheat oven to 350°.  Cream the brown sugar and butter in a large bowl until the mixture is homogeneous, then add the eggs.  If desired, add vanilla.

2.  In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients (except the oatmeal and the chocolate chips).  Mix well, and then add to the butter sugar mixture.  Sometimes I've been able to do this with my hands, and other times I have to use a large fork because the batter is too sticky.  This is correlated with the addition of vanilla (no vanilla, less sticky), but I am not convinced that there is an underlying causation there.  Just something I've observed.  

3.  If the dough is sticky, chill in the fridge for about half an hour.  Drop about 1/8 cup dough rolled into a ball, onto a greased cookie sheet, about two inches apart (you should be able to get a dozen on there without trouble from spreading).  Bake about 10 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown.  I personally go for chewier cookies, so if you're looking for a crunchier cookie, you're looking at 11 or 12 minutes.  There is some variation in ovens, so I would watch the first batch and go from there.  

Yield: ~ 3 dozen (but mine are larger, you could probably get closer to 4 dozen with smaller chocolate chips and smaller cookies)

N.B.  The Betty Crocker recipe mentions a coffee sugar drizzle.  I've never tried to make it, because when I first made these cookies, we didn't have any confectioners sugar.  The reviews have been great without it, so I haven't had any motivation to change the recipe.

That's all for now from this corner of cyberspace.  I hope that everyone out there is well and staying warm!

Peace and all good,

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Those who can, teach.

The coolest thing happened the other day in the lab that I teach.  One of my students was two hours late (this is not meant to be sarcastic, but I have to tell you this so you understand the rest of the story).  Because she was so late, her lab partner began the lab without her.  He was a bit nervous about having been cast off on his own, but as the TA, I tried to help him as best as I could. 

Unfortunately, my co-TA had come down with strep throat and at the last minute, she couldn't come to lab.  I, too, had been cast off on my own.

The professor was around for some of the lab period, and there are only ten students all together, but I learned a variation on Murphy's Law that day: all of the students will have questions at the same time.

My co-TA is an undergrad who has taken this particular course before, so I have been especially grateful for her experience.  In some ways, I was no different from my student who was temporarily without a partner.

An hour and a half into the lab period, that student got my attention.  We worked through another point of confusion with the experiment, and he said to me, smiling, "I really learned a lot today."  

What was equally awesome was the care he took with his lab partner when she finally arrived.  Newly an expert at this particular activity, he began explaining to her some of what he had done.  While I would never wish for my students to be late to lab, this was the best possible outcome.  It reminded me of a line I heard once:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

Peace and all good,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I suggest this is the best part of your life...

I have been hanging out in this corner of cyberspace for far too long without making a peep, and the longer I stay silent, the easier it is to stay silent.

I moved back to New York in the middle of July after a wonderfully fruitful year with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia.  My time as a volunteer, both in Philadelphia and in Camden, continues to inform my worldview as I transition into this next chapter.

During my short vacation, I was able to go to Chicago, where I spent several days at a conference, Catholics on Call.  About 45 twenty-something Catholic young adults gathered from all over the US (and even one person was from Canada!).  It was a phenomenal way to process all that has been on my heart these past two years.  There were several presentations, but for me the most fruitful part was hearing the stories of other young adults, just like me.

Soon after Catholics on Call, I moved out to Rochester, where I have begun school at U of R.  I love being back in school.  It's a ton of work, for sure, especially as I ramp up my math skills.  I have made some truly silly mistakes as I slowly un-bury all the things that I used to know, but it is fun, and I love that I get to be doing it.

I live with seven others: four Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester and three volunteers.  Two of the sisters are nurses by training, and one of the volunteers just graduated in Biology.  It's fabulous.

Looking back through my journals from my senior year of college, I was reminded of all the support that I had as I prepared to head off into a next step that was so far removed from all that I had done.   As grateful as I hope that I was then, I am even more grateful now for that support.  To be back in school, for me, is more than just a continuation of an idea that grew and grew throughout my college years.  It is the way that I feel I can honor all that I experienced in my two years of service.

I'll leave you with the song that's been in my head of late...

Peace and all good,

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth?

I had all sorts of dazzling words in my back pocket, but in the end, after being off the grid for so long, these are all I can muster:

This August, I will move to Rochester, NY to pursue a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Rochester. 

These past two years of service have been full of grace, and, with only a few days before I am to see my brother graduate from Le Moyne, I know that I am ready to make this next jump.

In an email that I wrote just the other day, I noted that, "I don't have any kind of certainty, but God has never wanted that, just my openness and my courage to come and see what good things can come from Nazareth."*
*For more on this reference, click here!

There are many "Nazareths" in my life, but I have found time and again that good things can and do come from these places, if I look for them.  The goodness can be found in the midst of a reality that holds sorrow, joy, awe with the same set of hands, and all of those things only serve to make it sweeter.

More to come.  I hope that you readers are all well, wherever you may find yourselves. 

Peace and all good,