Tuesday, January 17, 2012

USA FameLab

FameLab is a talent reality show for scientists. Instead of a vocal or dance competition, FameLab allows judges which scientist is the best at explaining complicated concepts to a general audience. There are no slides, or visual aids allowed -- just one scientist explaining to the audience.

My friend Marike Navin was a runner up in the 2007 FameLab competition in the UK.

This year NASA is hosting fame lab in the USA for astrobiologists. If you have ever been interested in being a science communicator, or just think you are really good at explaining things, you should audition.

The winner will be flown to the international final in the UK in June, 2012 and will receive a trip to JPL to cover the Mars Science Laboratory mission landing event in August, 2012.

Too bad I didn't realize this was going on a few days ago. The Houston auditions were last Friday --- and I was in Houston! I guess I'll have to enter via You Tube.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Impostor Syndrome (and other such problems in grad school)

Today a post-doc in my research group emailed me a link to a blog post about impostor syndrome. This sparked some conversation among those on the email about this topic and problems with grad school and academia in general.

For those who don't know impostor syndrome (according to wikipedia) is:
A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. It is commonly associated with academics and is widely found among graduate students.

I thought I'd put some highlights from the email conversation here because this seems to be such a wide spread problem, and one that I have thought about a lot and discussed with many people.

"I definitely have a tendency to think slightingly of my own abilities. There's a circular logic that I cannot escape: if I find something eminently do-able, that means it's easy. If it's easy, then I can't be impressed with myself for being able to do it. Therefore, I myself am only capable of accomplishing things that are trivially easy. The things that impress me, the things that are by this definition "hard", are the things I *can't* do, or the things that I think I can't do. Thus I am an unimpressive master of the trivial, while other impressive people out there are doing the hard work." -- UC Berkeley Prize Postdoctoral Fellow

"To this day I still have occasional thoughts that I got here by mistake. That they will re-read my applications and realize that they hired the wrong guy." -- Tenured Professor at UC Berkeley

"I've known about impostor syndrome for years, yet even with this knowledge I can't shake the feeling that I am truly different. That I really am the person who got here by accident or mistake -- or who isn't as good as anyone else. It's horrible how persistant this belief is, and how it causes me to focus in on any negative feedback I get, and dismiss praise and encouragement. While everyone goes through periods of insecurity, the real issue becomes when beliefs like this become so internalized that it causes me to become unproductive and/or depressed." -- Senior Berkeley Graduate Student

"It would be nice of physics/astronomy had more of a culture of giving positive feedback. When I gave a practice quals talk on campus to a group of students, the feedback was dominated (as one would expect) by constructive criticisms and ideas for improvement. I got an email afterwards by a woman in the audience saying she was frustrated with the lack of positive feedback, and proceeded to point out the strengths of my talk. I think the hard sciences tend to view comments like this as too "mushy." There seems to be much more of a culture of positive feedback in the social sciences. We should try to change this." -- Senior Berkeley Graduate Student

"I myself, and many women i know, have felt that we've gotten lucky along the way and that we haven't really earned the honors that we've received. I've consistently thought the phrase, " someday they are going to find out that I'm not really that good..." . I know rationally that I've earned my place, but i still often feel this way. And so do many women I know." -- Post-doctoral Fellow, Berkeley PhD Graduate

I think impostor syndrome plays a huge part in the problem of depression and anxiety of graduate students. The chronicle of higher education had an article a few years back titled "Grad School Blues" about mental health problems among graduate students.

I'm very interested in thoughts people have about this subject, or other articles people would recommend. I really don't think graduate school needs to be so painful and ego-deflating, however this problem seems to be persistant over time and location. I would love to hear readers comments/experiences.


Teaching Statement

Some of my job applications required a statement of teaching and philosophy. I thought I'd post it here, as it took some time to write, and might be helpful to others writing similar statements.

Teaching Experience and Philosophy
Jessica Kirkpatrick

My passion for physics and my personal academic history have combined to fuel a mission in me: I want to create a classroom environment which makes physics a more accessible subject. When diagnosed with a learning disability at age seventeen, I developed an interest in varied learning styles and strategies. Although I had always flourished in the sciences and mathematics, I would spend hours reading a single chapter of print. After extensive work with an educational therapist, I learned to draw on my strengths and accommodate my weaknesses using assistive technology as well as new approaches to learning.

While an undergraduate at Occidental College, I collaborated with another student to found the Learning Difference Association (LDA), which promoted awareness of learning disabilities and helped students with learning difficulties cope with their emotional, academic, and social concerns. LDA was a huge success: nearly half of the learning disabled students at Occidental were members, and it received the Club and Organization of the Year Award in 2000.

Founding LDA intensified my interest in understanding how people learn effectively. Hearing stories from my LDA peers about how their learning differences created challenges for them inside and outside of the classroom, I started to get a more complete perspective on how difficult learning can be for some students. While mathematics and physics came more naturally to me, I watched many classmates struggle with this material. I realized that some of the strategies LDA students used to accommodate their learning differences might be applicable to help the average physics student as well.

I next developed a physics version of the Academic Mastery Program (AMP), a tutorial program already utilized in other disciplines at Occidental. AMP provided a supplementary workshop to introductory classes, in which upperclassmen facilitated discussion, led problem-solving sessions, and conducted experiments with beginning students. I implemented this program as a sophomore, designed its lesson plans and problem worksheets, served as a facilitator for three semesters, and obtained funding to ensure its continuation.

My objective when developing AMP’s curriculum was to build on a student’s intuitions about the physical world from her day-to-day experiences. I hoped to guide her through a series of questions or exercises – creating a bridge between her observations of the world and the (sometimes unintuitive) problems that appear on typical physics exams and homework sets. Students developed this knowledge not only through pen-and-paper problem solving, but also by performing experiments, creating models using computer programs, and engaging in discussions with peers. My intention was to present the material in a variety of ways, making physics more accessible to a greater number of students.

I continued peer tutoring and advising throughout my undergraduate career. My personal history allowed me to empathize with struggling students and my alternative learning skills proved useful for many. I gained repute among Occidental physics and math undergrads, and my tutoring and advising hours always began with students lined up waiting for my arrival. My talents were acknowledged by the physics faculty who offered me a position as an adjunct instructor.

The year after I graduated from Occidental, I stayed on to work as an adjunct laboratory instructor and post-graduate researcher. The opportunity to be in charge of a classroom of 15 students helped me gain additional perspective on the role of college professor. I started to appreciate the interpersonal dynamics involved in managing a classroom, balancing the needs of the strongest or most vocal with those of students too shy to ask their questions. I did this by not only creating class-wide discussions, but having people talk in pairs or small groups. I made a point of engaging each individual student to evaluate if he was understanding the material. When a student didn’t understand, I would encourage him to talk with a peer who did. This allowed me to move on to other students, while providing the peer an opportunity to explain the concept and solidify her understanding as well. I also encouraged students to work with different people each week so that by halfway through the semester, most students knew each other, felt more comfortable engaging in class-wide discussions, and experienced a more jovial learning environment.

Every teaching session left me invigorated and extremely grateful for the opportunity to help others – especially considering all the assistance I was given when I was struggling. I decided that I wanted to become a science educator. This along with my love of physics research inspired me to pursue a PhD at UC Berkeley.

At UC Berkeley I have been a graduate student instructor (GSI) for three semesters. During this time I taught the entire physics introductory series. The structure of the introductory courses at UC Berkeley involves 2.5 hours per week of lecture with a faculty member, and 5 hours per week of labs, problem solving sessions, and office hours with a GSI. Because the majority of the students’ time per week is spent with the GSI, effective GSI instruction is critical to the student’s success.

During this time, I started to get an even broader sense of the struggles students have with introductory physics material. A major issue for students at UC Berkeley – a public university which attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds – is inadequate mathematics and science preparation for these courses. I repeatedly saw students who had understanding of the physical concepts and enjoyment of the material, but performed poorly on homework and exams because of weak math, language, or laboratory skills. I tried to identify these students early in the semester, by giving a skills assessment in the first week of class. This worksheet had students describe their background in math and physics and tested various skills that were considered a prerequisite for the class. I would then meet with students individually to discuss their assessment, and make recommendations as to how they might improve in certain areas. This sometimes involved their attending a workshop which reviewed certain math skills or taught a specific computer program. I might even recommend that the most under-prepared student postpone taking physics until he had taken a refresher course in math.

It became clear to me that a student’s success, motivation, perseverance, and determination is highly influenced by her psychological beliefs about herself and her epistemological beliefs about physics. I observed smart, capable students belittle themselves and give up (even when they were on the right track) because they thought “I just can’t do physics.” I saw students ignore their physical intuitions, and answer questions using rote memorization because they thought “that’s just how you do science.” I found it important to be especially encouraging of students who lacked confidence, to be very open about my own academic struggles, and to provide a realistic perspective on the amount of time and energy required to understand something as challenging as physics. I tried to develop in my students a general set of problem solving skills by giving unique problems which weren’t easily solved using “plug and chug” algorithms, but encouraged creativity and deeper thought. My goal was for my students to view physics as a web of intuitive concepts instead of a disconnected list of facts and formulas.

I see my teaching philosophy as a work-in-progress. I believe a key component to being an effective teacher is to avoid complacency by continually making adjustments as I gain more experience and obtain feedback from student and peers. My hope, if given a teaching position at your institution, is to gain a more formal experience in teaching and science education. I am also interested in developing educational projects, assignments, and exercises using astronomical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which would tie together my research interests with the teaching component of this position.