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,

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

This is where I am at.

(It's short and sweet today.)

What choice will help you to be more loving?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

doing justice doesn't always make cents...

After a crazy two months, I am back and better than ever.  I am at the tail end of application season (grad school) and (knock on wood) I hope that I won't get too sick again.  

Much has happened, but for now I will leave you with the article I have written for the upcoming newsletter for the Welcome Center, where I work.  It's the story that spawned this post in November.


My afternoons at the Welcome Center are busy and varied; I play "office manager," "lesson planner," "tutor" and "photocopy maker" on a daily basis, while also always trying to be "ready for any good work."  With my desk in the reception area, I am often the greeter of many of our dear neighbors.

One afternoon in November, Edona arrived at the Center directly from her job as a cafeteria worker for a local school. I had only met her once or twice before, but I knew that she had been one of our dear neighbors for quite some time. That day, she had a velvet carpet bag for a purse, which carried her money, three pears for her lunch, and some other sundry items.

"That is a pretty bag," I told her.

"Do you want it?" Edona asked.

"Oh no, thank you," I replied.

It was too late.

Edona began emptying the contents of her purse into a small plastic bag that she'd had inside. "Take it," she insisted.

"Thank you very much, Edona, but I have a bag." I pulled my own purse out from under my desk, as if my word wasn't enough to prove that I did not need the bag.

Edona would not be dissuaded. The whole scenario had reached the point where it was no longer going to take a polite declination of her offering to stop her from giving me that bag. She had turned it inside out and was picking crumbs out of it. I stood in the reception area, thoroughly mortified. In my mind, I was stealing. I had a bag already, and I had another at home, and I could get a bag if I really needed one.

That following Sunday, sitting in church, I heard again the story of the widow who gave all she had. In his homily, the priest recounted a story that he had been told about Mother Teresa. One day, she encountered a beggar who knew of her great works. He wanted to give Mother Teresa his whole day's earnings, about thirty cents. For that man, thirty cents was everything. It meant that he might be able to eat that day. Giving it away meant that he would spend another day hungry. For Mother Teresa, thirty cents was hardly any money. It wouldn't buy much. Taking that man's money, however, meant that he could earn back some of his dignity by feeling connected to her mission.

Mother Teresa took that man's daily bread, and I took Edona's carpet bag. They each offered freely all that they had, and doing justice meant accepting them, as they were.

That bag is a constant reminder to look deeper. I recall stories of people with bottomless bags (Mary Poppins and Hermione Granger come to mind), and I know that my heart must be like that bag, bottomless, open, and freely given.

Edona already knows about bottomless hearts; the proof is that I am the one with the carpet bag.

I needed that bag more than she did, after all.