Playing with boys

I realize the title of this post might be prone to misinterpretation, but it’s at the heart of the stigma that I’m about to describe. It’s a purely personal post this time and I’m putting myself out there, but it’s stuff that I’ve seen relating to traditional gender stereotypes. As such, I might have exaggerated something in my mind and generalizations are meant as such – they don’t pertain to everybody!

It was my birthday last week. I was very happy for all the congratulations from all around the world given to me. In the evening we went out for an amazing gourmet dinner with my husband and daughter. It was in a restaurant called “Hexenhaus” (witches’ house) and since it was around Halloween the decoration was very according to theme. Anyway, I am not a foodie in the strictest sense of the word, but I do love good food and that it was, yum!

But the funnest part was spent the night before, celebrating INTO my birthday – playing poker! And since I don’t know that many girls/women that play poker as passionately as I do, it meant playing poker with the boys. What was touching, was that promptly at midnight, the boys stood up and sang their “Happy birthdays”, brought out cake and gave me big hugs. I had not told them it was my birthday, they looked it up on their own. awww.

The next few days I got all into this introspective mood, how I am still “playing with boys”. All my life I’ve done that, I’ve enjoyed it much more. It has influenced me to the point that I choose to make those interests that were traditionally pursued by “boys” my own. I am not entirely sure if it was if I enjoyed playing with the boys more of it were more traditional male activities that I liked, but I’ve often found myself in situations where I suddenly had to stop, look around and see I was the only female around. I don’t notice this as often, because you are so immersed in those activities when you are having fun.

When I was a child it meant going go-karting with my dad amongst a trough of boys doing the same thing with their respective dads. It meant playing soccer with my male classmates. As a young teenager it meant organizing Super Nintendo outings with other boys where we would order pizza and just trash talk to each other. It meant playing basketball with the younger boys in my neighborhood. As a teenager it meant long afternoons at the comic book store playing Magic: The Gathering. And here I am, grown woman with a family, still playing with the boys.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like activities that are mostly populated by women – I love chick flicks and girly books, for example. Some of my best friends are female¬†ūüėõ – nah, they all are. It’s just that again and again, when I’m doing something socially, with people around, I find boys around me. It’s almost as if it is easier for me to communicate to you via games – especially card and strategy games.

You know what has been great? All throughout the years all of the boys have taken me in. I don’t recall an instance where I was told I wasn’t welcome because I was a girl. Sure, there was some trash talk along the way, when I excelled (“you got beaten by a girl”), but I don’t recall anybody ever turning me away.

You know what hasn’t been great? The reaction from outside! “Why do you want to try out for karate? A girl doesn’t fight!”, “I’m having trouble accepting the fact that you are not hanging out with girls of your age (14-15) and are spending your afternoons with 10-11 year old boys”. There is a whole lot more skepsis from outside, mostly born out of ignorance, sometimes out of cultural biases. Or maybe they think men and women can never be friends. Or what do I know, it’s from the outside, not the people dealing with the substance, but the people just looking in.

And here is where the astrophysics relation comes in. Over the course of my time studying and working in physics it has been quite similar. Never once did any fellow student or colleague think any less of me because of my gender. And yep, there are mostly boys around me at work, too (though maybe not that pronounced as I have witnessed with other interests in my life). But from outside: “Why do you feel the need to lie to strangers by telling them you are getting your degree in astrophysics?” (yes, this really happened). More examples came when I became a mother, but I’m not sure if that had anything to do with the profession or the fact that I was going to work at all, so they probably don’t apply here.

I guess readers will counter all the numerous studies about how women thrive in STEM fields exactly *when* they are separated and amongst themselves. Since they do, there must be some inherent discrimination in the group itself, otherwise the good ones will always succeed. Well, I have no counter for that, I just want to say that either a) I’m very blind/deaf to that discrimination or b) I did not experience it. Ah, this now sounds all wrong. My main point is that I just want people to thrive at what they have fun and don’t just do something, because it is social convention to do it! If it means crochet, then you should pursue that, no matter what the others say. May the people outside think what they want, the people in the crochet club will welcome you with open arms, I’m sure!

So to all my boys I’ve spent so many countless hours with, sharing a similar interests, competing, discussing “pointy elbows” or some sports opinion (Trout over Cabrera, imo), I say: “Thank you! And see you at the tables, soon!”

We need to become better programmers


For a long time programming has been a “means to an end” kind of thing. Like math, I was never really interested in full derivation of the proofs of the theorems we were doing in class. I just did the math and I was damn good at it, if I might say so, but I don’t think I would be happy being a pure mathematician. Similarly, I enjoyed my programming classes in college very much. It was sort of a game for me who would write the best (efficient, working) programs with the least amount of lines. I always enjoyed that challenge.

As such, when it finally came to research, I’m happy to say that I did have the tools to tackle the daily tasks in programming presented to me. I had the techniques of algorithmic¬†approach in me to take on large databases, for example. It was only a few years later that I started to realize that my programs were pretty bad. Oh, they worked perfectly and fast, but no person but me could actually use them (and maybe not even me 5 years from now). They were horribly documented, were unreadable and required the input data to be in an extremely narrow way specified by me. I realized this when I started to publish and people were starting to e-mail me asking me how I calculated the Gini coefficient or Balnicities or similar. It dawned on me that I would be a lousy programmer at a software company or for everything that involved large collaborations.

This was very present in my mind when I came to Germany to work on the Data Reduction Pipeline for MUSE. I was (and sometimes still are) scared that people were going to dismiss my work, since it was documented so lousily. I’m actually quite happy that I have been tasked with the documentation of the pipeline, because that is allowing me to approach this very rigorously keeping in mind that everybody in our collaboration should be able to use the software. In german, we have the acronym DAU – “D√ľmmster anzunehmender user” (dumbest possible user) as a wordplay on GAU – “Gr√∂√üter anzunehmender Unfall” (greatest possible accident) from nuclear power stations. It relates to program “usability” in general.

I was then quite excited when recently a paper was published on “Best Practices for Scientific Computing” by Aruliah et al. It exactly describes the problems that are facing us astronomers more and more. In a world were author lists are growing, survey data often out-trumps single observations and ever larger and more complex observing instruments, we are increasingly faced with programming – and not easy peasy programming at that.

A lot of my fellow colleagues think that ever astronomer nowadays should take at least one year sabbatical to *really* get into the world of computer programming, not just your quick shell script to modify your ascii table, but really rigorous scientific approach to it. I don’t quite share that extreme of a view, but if you check out the “whatmyfriendsthinkido” meme for astronomy going around at the beginning of the year (see above), it is a quite accurate depiction of my laptop screen most of the time. There are variations of this meme, but the main point remains the same.

Anyway, but back to the article. I had sort of an epiphany last week. I was reducing actual MUSE lab data – lamp tests, pinhole mask tests, geometry issues and the like. If you look at the image below, you’ll see that we still have a long way to go… uff. The important thing is that there were on the order of 50 files and there were not ordered particularly well, you had to look in the headers to find the type of observations, to see which BIAS you had to use – very chaotic. Part of me was screaming to just go through them by hand and just run the pipeline on them one by one, since I would have to use different biases, arcs, flats and the likes, plus they were totally named with different identifiers.

But I remembered that article that I should not keep on doing repetitive tasks. So I soldiered on and 3 days later and many google (stackoverflow and similar) searches later I had a working program on which I could just hit “Enter” and let it run over the weekend. Now, perhaps running it “by hand” might have taken the same 3 days it took me to write that automation, but I had so much fun doing it. My office mate even learned something new relating to bash. I went home that weekend so satisfied. And I was proud of my little program, ready to tackle the next round of testing!

And then I remembered the legend that “DVD Jon” once said (I think it was him that said that, but I’m not entirely sure) that he had way more fun developing DeCSS than later watching the movies derived from that program. In a way, I learned that way of thinking from my father, too. He builds molds for the plastic industry, mostly complicated thermoforming ones. But that challenging work is way more fun than the final product that just gets stamped out by the millions.

I don’t know, it was such a well written and easy to read article, just wanted to give out an endorsement of it again and urge you to read it!

Family-friendly as an institutional culture

I was recently reading an article on the Women In Astronomy blog how the culture in your department has a big impact on how you perceive your work and your role in the organization. (Does Organizational Culture Matter? ). Naturally you start comparing departments and their cultures and what they emphasized. For example, in my time at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab an enormous amount of time was devoted to health and safety, while perhaps a bit of the start-up entrepreneurship was lost. There are always pros and cons on how an institutional culture affects you.

While, for example, the institution’s stance on, outreach or teaching could be an important point worthy of a blog post, this time around, I would like to focus more on family-friendly culture. It was only fitting that a few weeks ago this interesting video by Bryan Gaensler¬†was released on Youtube. Bryan is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) at Sydney. His talk deals with family-friendly initiatives at CAASTRO and since it is an astronomy institute I thought it was quite relevant to watch it!

Here are the main points I got from the talk he held:

When advertising a position try to make part-time employment an option. It will leave you money to do something else and even perhaps hire somebody else. The part-time employee will be very dedicated. Don’t exclude a big fraction of very qualified candidates, be flexible in your timelines.
This resonated with me a lot. When I came to Berlin, I was not sure how free I would be with everything. It was not clear how everything would work out with Anna at her new school. My grandmother is not in the best of health. So when the head of my department offered me the half-time option when offering me the position, I was very thankful. I didn’t take it in the end, but I’m sure I would have been *way* more productive than the 20 hours he would’ve been paying me for, it would’ve taken off the guilt we feel that we aren’t working enough and it would’ve left me time for hobbies or other things. Great point and I love that Bryan put it first!

All core meetings should take place between 10-2. Be aware of school holidays. Don’t schedule some important meeting, workshop or similar into those holidays.
This! So much! Look, I can understand that some telecons need to deal with time differences and that some people will be undoubtedly unhappy with set times in large international corporations. But when you would schedule a work event (seminar, team meeting, etc.) at 4pm or later you are basically implying that you do not care about daycare times and are effectively signaling to people with children that those concerns are not valid in your mind.
The same goes for vacations. Here at work we have annual scientific evaluations end of October, which are “strongly recommended” (i.e. mandatory) to attend. For a long time this used to be during school holidays about two months before and it was very hard for people who had school age kids to attend. Don’t assume that conference attendees can just shuffle their kids with them during school holidays. At least be aware!

Welcome the child in the workplace!
I totally get where he’s coming from. He’s not talking about setting up a daycare at work or having toys lying around the office or the workplace suddenly becoming a screaming place. No, it’s that security, that if there’s an emergency, I can let my child come to work with me for some hours, let her play on the iPad a bit or let her draw some things and not feel guilty with other colleagues. It makes it so much easier. When I moved workplaces from the Livermore Lab to IPAC suddenly a world of opportunities opened in that sense, too. It just became a whole lot easier. It’s not about setting up your work to do the babysitting, it’s that even if I just took advantage of it once a year or so, the peace of mind that it is possible is great! Here at work, we are actually in the process of setting up a child-parent room to handle such emergencies, so I am very happy with that.

Discourage working from home, because working from home lets the barrier between work and home fall.
I’m afraid he’s too late with that one with me, heh! But then my computer is a mess of work and personal stuff, too. I am one of those people who does personal stuff in the workplace, too.
Anyway, but I do understand where he’s coming from! As an employer I would definitely not want my employees to be there 24/7 – always available. So there are exceptions when to work from home, e.g. waiting for a repairman, but don’t encourage it! Science is about collaboration and sometimes just walking down the hall to talk to somebody about that crazy idea you just had or that one line of shell script that just isn’t working. You don’t get that at home and many of the interactions (telecons, e-mails, etc.) might seem forced.

Ask yourself if mentioning the parental status of the person is really necessary (this affects women mostly).
I am very happy this doesn’t happen at my institute very much, but I have seen this so often at other places, when a speaker is giving a seminar or so
A friend of mine was thinking of leaving astronomy after having her 2nd child. The relationship with the supervisor was a bit strained because of that – he didn’t want her to leave the job, but he was angry all the time that she left work so early in the afternoon. Ah, but as soon as somebody from outside came to visit the institute, she was the token WOMAN that “yes, it is possible to be a researcher and have two kids”. ugh!
People have children, but it shouldn’t define your professional status! It’s an unconscious stereotype that is easily broken.

Yeah, sure, great science can happen when having a few beers with colleagues. But most of us don’t have that option. Don’t make it a requirement to be part of those social groups to succeed. No after hour social event with work branding!
I really feel for this. When I was a postdoc at Caltech one of the parts that I missed were the social outings that a lot of the other postdocs had. And it was mostly just beer and fun. But I had a family to go home to and wasn’t free in that sense. But that is fine and great and you want to actively encourage socialization outside of the workplace, as long as it doesn’t have an institutional label and it is clear that being part of these social groups is not necessary to be successful at work! Exception: a Christmas party or similar.

Don’t be the boss that is the last to leave! Try to say goodbye to people who work with you.
It sends a signal that it is ok to leave at 5, it makes people feel less guilty about leaving work (early). As a leader don’t feel like you need to hide that you need to leave work for personal reasons. If you don’t have guilt leaving for personal reasons it will make the others feel less guilt, too.

A few things about parking, carer’s leave and flexible culture which I won’t go into deeper, but which lead into an immensely important point.

Talk to people about impostor syndrome, let them know you have it, too.
Oh boy, this is a big one. I think the majority of us suffer from it. Even though *I know* that I am an efficient programmer, I still sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that my current position was gained through a combination of hard work and luck, but not out of inherent skill. Somebody surely will find out soon that I don’t really belong here.
Please, please read JohnJohn’s thoughts on this matter.

Being a family-friendly institution is a choice of culture, but I am definitely happy that I am working at an institution that embraces that choice!

Personal comment on the infamous letter to astronomy grad students

If you are in the world of astronomy, you probably have heard or read about the infamous letter written by senior staff of an unnamed “famous” astronomy department sent out to their grad students (though it is not difficult to find out which department sent out the letter). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read the “inspirational” e-mail here.

The first reactions and comments were naturally ones of outrage (see e.g. astrobetter). There were tweets and facebook posts that were shocked and indignated, mostly on the fact that we, as astronomers, should be working on the subject all of our waking hours and expressing “Thank you, sir, may I have another“. I think that the main source of the scorn was the claim that you have to work 80-100 hours per week on astronomy as a grad student if you want to have a succesful path as a researcher.

First of all, I don’t think anybody can work that long over prolonged periods of time (there’s even evidence for that).¬†As an exception, because there were so many deadlines, I worked 65 hours last week and feel tired today. I hardly saw my family last week and am pretty unhappy about that. Now add 15 hours to that and I would feel downright atrocious.

However, I feel like that putting a number to the hours you work in a week missed the point completely. I am especially sad that the letter put this point first without any nuance or diplomacy – a great way to discourage your students. I can smugly say that even though my advisor was trying to impart similar wisdom to me about working hard, his way of doing it had a much more positive effect on me. Let me veer a bit into personal anecdote time here:

I found out in 2005 I was pregnant. The timimg is never perfect. I had just gotten the Lawrence Fellowship for Graduate Students. Ironically, while that made my measly grad student salary multiply by about 1.5 times, it carried a pretty horrendous health insurance making me basically pay for a big part of the costs during pregnancy and birth, basically negating all the gains in salary (heh!). Anyway, there I was, freshly married and quite frankly scared of telling my advisor that I was about to devote a large part of my life to a new being growing inside of me.

He couldn’t have been any more supportive. First questions were of the lines of “Are you ok?”, but then he did the smart thing, appealing to my ego: “You’re not thinking of leaving astronomy, are you? That would be a big loss! You can make a great scientist. You can make it happen”. Anyway, I left that meeting with a big sense of confidence, that yes, I could make it happen! He didn’t sugarcoat anything, he never said I could succeed by just being half as productive, but he saw the potential that it was doable.

Fast forward about 14 months. I was on my first trip since having my daughter. We were observing at Keck. Funnily, many people complain that they feel tired all the time while observing, but let me tell you, with an 8-month old at home, I felt refreshed and slept like I hadn’t in months, i.e. contiguous 6 hours. heh! Anyway, it was September of 2006 and I was supposed to be graduating less than a year from that date. I had produced just one paper (my deal with my advisor had been three) and I was hitting a roadblock with the analysis of the two big papers. For the Hubble paper, I feel like I wasn’t getting the fitting program, how to tweak the parameters, etc. I just wanted to scream at the world: “Look at the pictures! They tell all the story, what do I need to analyze here!?!?!”.

So we were driving back from a pretty unsuccessful run. We had just gotten a few hours of data out of 2 or 3 nights, I forget. I was feeling down, it was just too hard, the baby, the roadblocks, the stupid clouds. So somewhere on the road between Waimea and Kona my advisor asked me if I really wanted it, that the time and commitment I was putting in wasn’t gonna cut it. Especially not when I was doing other things than the analysis needed for the papers. “It’s all about decisions, Tanya. The person observing after you tonight went diving today. It is a nice thing to do, especially if you’re in Hawai’i. But to really want that job in astronomy, you will need to give up some nice things sometimes.”

All about decisions. That point really resounded with me. I can’t tell you that suddenly everything worked out fine. But I worked hard and by November, close to Thanksgiving I had *the* analysis, *the* main point of the Hubble paper done. There’s even a funny story about my excitement over that result. I had gotten the correlation with which my most disturbed objects were also the most reddened ones on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. I know because the next morning was a “Baby and me” class that I attended every Friday (those who know me will cringe, since they already know this story). We were asked around the circle to say what we were thankful for. I was to go first and happily blurted out that I had just found out the last piece of the puzzle of the paper and that I would be one step closer to graduating. Oh man, that was the wrong answer in that group and I only realized it slowly after every. single. mom. was thankful for having a healthy baby. Ooops!

I did not get a job for the 2007 job season (but only half a year later), that would’ve been too convenient of a story, wouldn’t it have been?. But I can tell you that 2007 was a year which I did focus on work, very much. I shooed colleagues away wanting to come in and gossip, the hours at work were too precious. It was about decisions. The fact that I did not even know what was playing on the TV during those years (I know my friends were obsessed with Lost!, heh), what was going on in the news. I may not have been the best paper reader, may not have had the best code written, it was sometimes hard going at it a bit alone (not completely alone, of course, thank you, Mark!). But the focus was there, the motivation was sparked that kept me going, I was gonna to whatever it took to get that PhD and hopefully that postdoc job!

Mind you, I didn’t suddenly work some magical fixed number of hours a week or spent my time at home with my baby on one arm and the laptop in the other. Rather, and it sounds weird to say it like that, I became more efficient. I most definitely missed some things. I couldn’t have done it without the enormous help and encouragement of my husband. But I can’t explain it better than I was really into everything astronomy during that time (as I feel like I have been this year, too). And it’s like an avalanche, it just multiplies and gets bigger.

Anyway, boy did I veer off the point. It was about this fixation on the number of hours worked, when in reality you should get away from this thinking. It’s about the focus, the flow and the results which you should measure. And thankfully the posts and blogs that have come out since have been a bit more nuanced and addressed much more eloquently what I was wanting to say. The two articles I liked I liked the most were:

a) The post by Elizabeth Lovegrove over at astrobites. Its main point is that there is no clear line where work ends and when fun begins and that we should step away from the computer once in a while. That doesn’t mean that you suddenly should seek out weird ways of doing science in the cafeteria, but rather that we are not in a factory where some fixed amount of product needs to be produced in a certain amount of time. It is science, insights don’t come at the n-th hour worked on the subject.

b) Another amazing blog on the subject was written by Lucianne Walkowicz. It’s downright inspirational for any field you work in. Right in the beginning she tackles the issue about the number of hours worked with this simple sentence: “If you are counting how many hours a week you are working, you probably don’t like your job very much.” Exactly! I couldn’t have conveyed it better. I would suggest you just sit down and read the whole article, it deals with health, goals and a whole bunch of other things that I was just nodding along to.

Lastly, I do want to say that I hope if anything good comes out of this discussion is: yes, it’s about decisions, but there are a few things that you should not decide away – it is your health, be it physical or mental and your family and close friends! Now go on, keep on truckin’!