Category Archives: resources

Fifteen minutes

In times of pandemic, there were no coffee room to distract yourself, exchange ideas with other colleagues or just chat about the state of the world. In a certain sense, Twitter has been the equivalent of a coffee room, and I’ve probably spent more time than I should have on there, but I’ve also learned quite a lot about science – not the natural world in itself, but how it works as an enterprise, some of its limitations (e.g. publishing), some of its problem (e.g., mental health issue, impostor syndrome; systemic discrimination) and also participate to the conversation on how to improve things.

The way you use Twitter is personal; some spend a lot of time but stay in the shadow, some like to share everything they see as they would do on Instagram. For me, I use it as a bookmark for tiny ideas (I often use the Twitter advanced search to find a resource I know I shared at some point), and I try to post something every once in a while, to tell the others I’m here. And more and more I use it to boost some messages (propping up students and announcements), which I can do now that I do have some followers with large reach (@Cal, @UCBerkeley, @BerkeleyLab or @SPIEtweets or influential people.)

Lots of various interests converge in my following

Sometimes I post a tweet that blows up, and I wander in the Twitter Analytics to look at the aftermath. There, you realize that even with a tiny following, you can reach a lot of people (At the present moment I have 450 followers, and 120,000 impressions.)

This was a month with a particularly high number of tweet impressions

The good thing about Twitter is that there’s no filter: anyone can say anything they want, and sometimes you happen to produce something interesting, something that others needed without knowing it was there (that’s the essence of virality.)

This one I showed to my mon

The flip side of course is that you have to be mindful of what you say – what people call cancel culture is often the absence of an editor, or simply time to fine tune their message, to tell them they’re going too far. In the extreme, you get incendiary content that get amplified in weird ways by algorithms that are extremely good at hacking your dopamine pathways (here’s an excellent thread on that topic)

On Twitter, you also get to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise – people that are not in your existing network, but are expert and willing to help (you also realize that a lot of people you admire are on Twitter – or is it just the opposite?)

Something I didn’t expect is that I would meet in real life people I got to know from Twitter, and some who are now lifelong friends. People with who you share affinity with and a common sense of purpose.

I do like Twitter, and even though it has some similarities with drugs (I used to smoke cigarettes, and the urge to check Twitter whenever you’re idle is strangely similar), it is much better than most other social media. Somehow, they managed not to grow it too big, and it is still a very civil space from where I learn a lot.

Hikes in Berkeley and around

Some times ago I gave a talk to the Berkeley Lab Postdoc Association about the many hikes around Berkeley.

The slides are available here: go.lbl.gov/blpa/cultural_aw21

And the recording is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/124Rh0-5q0oVF_tX5_3WV1yd8wW5jKBlz/view

Other resources on this blog:

Mindfulness meditation

Over the last month I conducted interviews with people from the Berkeley Lab meditation group that we started three years ago.

Mindfulness Meditation – An Interview with the LBL Mindfulness Meditation Group

The meditation group is quite diverse, from members of the National Academy of science to postdocs to building project managers, and it was a blast to get to talk to them and learn about how they see things and what they enjoy!

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Berkeley women supercharching the US government

There’s been quite a shift in the US government, and I am thrilled to see that Berkeley, my town of adoption, is very well represented in the new administration. It shouldn’t be a surprise given a premier public university is obviously a great pool of talent, but there is something about the place and its people that is very special and I cannot pinpoint. Among the Berkeley representatives in the new government:

  • Kamala Harris, the Vice-President, who grew up in Berkeley and whose mother worked at Berkeley Lab
  • Jennifer Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, who is professor at Berkeley and technically a colleague from Berkeley Lab
  • Janet Yellen, the Secretary of Treasury and a former Berkeley professor.

It is my experience that the US administration can be extremely competent under a good leadership, a point made by Michael Lewis (another Berkeley resident) in his book The Fifth Risk, where he was trying to explain how we might survive a deficient head of government (it seems he’s been right on that one, though we lost half a million people to a pandemic that could probably have been contained much better.

Building on 4th Street, Berkeley

In terms of science, the outlook is pretty good, with people. It also happens that Frances Arnold, Nobel prize laureate and Berkeley alumni, will be part of the government, will help Eric Lander whose role at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has been elevated to cabinet role. There’s also the Endless Frontier bill that would double the funding of science in the US and likely to pass thanks to bipartisan support.

It’s quite a home run year for Berkeley women, with Jennifer Doudna who was awarded a Nobel prize for her discovery of CRISPR/Cas9.

More:

Michael Lewis: ‘Trump is like a psycho dad to America’ – The Guardian

aknownspace

My friend Sana has started a wonderful literary project called “A known space.”

Here’s the first issue: A known space: Vol. 1: Nucleus (my personal contribution: The Sound of the waves)

credit: Szymon Kobusiński – TRANSSUBSTANTIATIO

Wade on!

Education in synchrotron

A new year is always a good time to try something new, and because we’re all stuck home because of the pandemic, it’s also a good occasion to learn more about some topics in science. I’ve consolidated here some resources that I have enjoyed over the years, or that are not easily accessible (the information about x-rays tend to be scattered, which is something x-ray do very well)

To get started, I recommend going through the free course by Philip Wilmott from PSI on EdX: Synchrotrons and X-Ray Free Electron Lasers. It is pretty comprehensive and covers a lot of the basis of x-ray science; it’s basically a boiled down version of the companion book “An Introduction to Synchrotron Radiation: Techniques and Applications” he wrote in 2011. This would take probably a week full-time, but you can probably stretch them over a few month if you’re not into binge watch (but it is probably as captivating as the Queen’s Gambit.)

The blue glow of the synchrotron radiation (AW 2020)

To mention also: if you’re a grad student working with synchrotrons, I would recommend applying for the three-week National School on Neutron and X-ray Scattering, generally at Argonne National Lab in the summer, but online this time around. I’m not sure if they will increase their cap of 60 participants.

Light source 101

For the ALS User Meeting this year (held remotely), Fanny Rodolakis and Monika Blum organized a new edition of the Light Source 101 workshop, where beamline scientists from the Advanced Light Source explain their science. Luckily, these talks where recorded (they are available as bulk here), and I have edited them in sizeable, 30-min chunks about most of the cool techniques we offer.

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The value of coffee in research

The past nine months have been spent working from home, and it has now become clear that what I miss the most is the casual interactions with colleagues in the coffee room.

It is a place where ideas sparks, and where information flows from one scientist to the other. The importance of this liminal space should not be understated. It provides a safe space where ideas can be freely challenged and developed, owing to the generally low number of participants, the low stakes and the general mood.

Over the years, I’ve developed several coffee clubs in my buildings (I’ve changed buildings three times), adding an espresso machine wherever I could (often on my own funds, though coffee beans where purchased collectively.)

Elementary Table of Coffee (Berkeley Lab building 2 coffee room, 2013-2016) (@awojdyla, Feb 4 2018)

The importance of the mood component became apparent as we switched to online meetings and we started to lack this kind of space (thankfully my colleague Diane B. organized regular coffee zooms!), though nothing replaces the in-person interaction, with a white board where people can share their thoughts.

Saul Perlmutter casting a definitive vote on the planet-ness of Pluto in our coffee room (Berkeley Lab building 2)

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The scientist as public intellectual

Lately, I’ve been talking with a few early career scientists among my friends, trying to convince them to set up a website, and perhaps have some kind of open social media presence (e.g. Twitter.)

It’s not only about dressing things up, even if you may feel like it is

The primary reason is that since they’re going to have jobs where they will be judged on their past accomplishment, their names will necessarily be googled, and random results will appear; perhaps linkedin, google scholar, researchgate or a github account will show up on the first result page (try googling your name in private mode!) Having a website would allow to take control of the information about you, and highlight what you think is relevant.

The second reason, and perhaps the most important, is that as scientists we are public intellectual. We are paid to produce research and communicate around it. You are entitled to use your expertise on topics in your field and make it clear, through a webpage or a blog, and maybe share tools and resources you found useful. The scientific publication ecosystem is pretty bad, far from open access, and articles themselves are so terse they cannot be understood by anyone outside your field. You can use your website to make your research publicly available (it’s legal, you still own the rights, see here) and also give some context to it, by surrounding it with other relevant pieces or break it down to make it digestible.

Don’t be afraid of the light

However, the typical reaction of my fellow researcher is that “it’s not my style”, “I don’t want to self-promote.” I tend to think it’s oftentimes and extension of the impostor syndrome (great piece by my friend Maria Żurek)

It was about one year ago when I received an email: “Dear Dr. Żurek, We are happy to offer you a postdoctoral position at Berkeley Lab”. And what was my first reaction? “They probably think I’m nice, so they didn’t realize I’m inadequate”. Yes, this was my first thought, even if I had objectively good research experience, even if I was very well prepared for the application, even if I was fully aware that what I had been dealing with was the monster called impostor syndrome.

Since you spend your time doubting about the depth of your knowledge, you can never find the right time to talk about it.

But in truth I believe a big part of it is laziness – or just knowing where to start: it’s not easy to set up a website, though there are helpful guides for those who are interested (e.g. Dan Quintana.)

The visibility of scientists

Another important aspect of the scientist as a public individual is to lead by example. Academia is rapidly evolving, and we need to be visible to make everyone welcome. While historically it’s been pretty white, pretty male and pretty old, with a heavy dose of reproduction among elites, it is important to share your own story, as younger scientists may not know how academia works, because their parents or nobody around them were not academics themselves. (alternatively, writing wikipedia pages for others is a good occasion to document such stories, and for you to learn from other people trajectory and pass it on.)

It also became increasingly important that the scientist engages the public sphere. Not only to counter false messages, but also because influential (read: established) scientist also happen to be out of touch.

Twitter presence is also good in your pursuit — it’s a good hook if you don’t have the time for a full blog/website and you’re looking for interaction. Here’s a piece on how to get started: Threads. It’s also important to understand the Science Twitter ecosystem; here’s a few account I enjoy which to me represent various aspects of the question

Science communication

Let me insist here once again that papers aren’t written to be read, but to be evaluated (eventually, if you land Nature, you’ve scored an A+) and actually very few people will do the promotion of your research (there’s no money to make out of it.) Write a paper is like getting a great, it’s your role to make it accessible. Plus doing this effort at the start will compound — later on you can more easily share research and *its context* with others.

It is good to have some experience with writing non-scientific articles: it pushes you to conduct interviews to substantiate your claims. Asking colleagues is sometimes… anathema in science, for fear of competition. But this is rarely the true excuse: people are often just too lazy to reach out. Teach yourself and your colleagues to do it!

In “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates characterize journalists as seekers, and scientists should also seek to be seekers, and not only through producing new results but also by synthesizing information which is already there or summarizing opinions on a given topic. And that’s an acquired skill you learn by doing, and may help you create fruitful collaborations: the most interesting results often come from serendipitous interactions, and that’s something to cultivate.

Polis

Politics is a very sensitive topic in science. People like to think science is neutral, because scientists are seeking some kind of grand objective truth, and that politics has nothing to do with it. In truth, they are afraid (and reasonably so) to get their funding cut. Actually, scientists love to talk about politics, but it barely transpires outside the coffee room.

The current period, where the current pandemic of covid-19, and the looming threat of climate change has never made clearer that scientists are under assault and need to speak up. You are entitled to your opinion, and as long as you don’t speak in the name of your institution (and make it clear), things should be fine.

Just look at the most prominent scientist of the current era, Anthony Fauci. He doesn’t hesitate to reach out, and he’s perfectly comfortable with that:

A very public intellectual

If he can do it at age 80, why couldn’t you?

Some thoughts about gender gaps in STEM

Liminary note: I am not a social scientist, but I try to educate myself about some issues facing academia, and this is the result of my inquiries. If you think some elements are incorrect or if you have good resources to share, please let me know!

In this short Life
that only merely lasts an hour
How much – how
little – is
within our
power

Emily Dickinson

Gender gaps in academia are pretty dire, and while it seems to get acknowledged and addressed, it’s not clear whether the root causes – especially social norms – are fully understood and can be solved. The paper Understanding persistent gender gaps in STEM (Science 368, 6497; June 2020, pdf) offers interesting statistics and insights.

Gender gap in physical science majors

The problem does not seem to be a difference in achievement, but social factors rather.

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