Falling on your face (or someone else’s)

I am not a coordinated person. It was never meant to be. My brain hears rhythm, but my body makes chaos. This can be easily understood when I dance, but I love dancing, and I rarely maim people in the process.

Gymnastics, though, is another story. I hate gymnastics. I think gymnasts are amazing, but I have less than zero desire or ability to mimic them. When I was the age that people had birthdays at gymnastics studios, I wondered why one would want to celebrate with outright torture.

I do not like being upside down, hanging on things, walking on narrow things, or bouncing around. I am not good at it, and I am terrified of it.

On the upside, it has proven to have a purpose recently. My son has been trying lots of new things, and not all of them have gone well. Gratefully, he is coordinated. (Yay, Dad!) But he is working on learning to ride a bike, and he’s scared, and he’s struggled a bit. Notably, our neighbor who is the same age is riding without training wheels. He’s very aware of this.

Sure enough, he went into the sad place and told me no one is worse than him. I was armed and ready.

When I was in 5th grade, in a fit of flaming insanity, we had gymnastics class in school, and we had to do penny drops. The premise is that you hold onto the upper bar of the uneven bars, hook your legs around the lower bar, and let go. You spin around, your legs release, and you land on your feet. There is no reason this would even be a useful thing, but it was required. I failed at negotiating, so I hooked my legs over the lower bar and let go.

Here’s the thing: thanks to gravity, you go upside down. I am not meant to be upside down, and my body, realizing this, did what it does best: flail. If there was an Olympics of flailing, I would get the gold. There is not now, nor was there in 5th grade, but there was a spotter who was a very kind, wonderful teacher who never knew a human could flail like I could. My foot caught her face. I landed, probably thanks to her, and she had to leave to go to the doctor.

I told my son this story. He looked at me. “Mom, what happened?” “I broke her nose.” “Oh, no. But it was an accident.”

It was. It was a total accident. Things don’t always go as we plan. Sometimes we struggle, and sometimes people get kicked in the face by 10 year olds. But, I did what you are supposed to do. I got back on the proverbial horse, or in this case, the balance beam.

The teacher returned. Her nose was all taped up, but she was in good spirits. I can’t help but wonder if she had a head injury, because she volunteered to spot me again. She decided that my issue was fear which was probably true, and the solution was to face my fear, so I should do a leap on the balance beam. I did. Guilt is a powerful thing but not as powerful as my innate sense of chaos. I fell. On her. She went to the doctor again. I broke her arm.

My son looked at me. “You broke her arm?” “Yes. It was an accident. I spent the rest of the class on my own mat in the corner where I couldn’t hurt anyone.” “Am I ever going to ride a bike?” Yes, you will. In your own time, when you’re ready. But if I’ve learned nothing else, not ever fear needs to be faced, at least not right away.” “Want to do yoga?” And so, a kid and his spastic mom did yoga in the yard. Conquering the bike will wait.

Wherever that teacher is, I’m sorry. Thank you for trying. I still can’t do any of those things, but it taught me a lot about failure and the inner voice that asks why we do things and listening to it.

COVID-19 and Education

It’s a strange time to be a professor. I had to shutter my lab and help my colleagues shutter theirs. I am teaching online. I prepped a course for moving online in 2015, but I had months. We will be this way through the Spring, and I wonder what will happen in the Summer and Fall with the virus and with our university.

The only reason I am functioning in this is that I have incredible students. They have been beyond generous in moving online, discussing what is working and what is not and explaining basic functions of the software. I am definitely the learner in so much of this. The students in my lab have brought all of their humanity and work ethic home with them. They are trying to do as much as possible, teach themselves, and support each other.

The students are doing this while dealing with so much. Some have moved. Some have lost their income. Some are not sure where they will live in a few weeks if they know now. They are struggling with finding places and spaces to work and managing their mental health at an incredibly hard time. Some are sick and worried they have the virus. It is so much for them to carry, and yet they find the space to be so incredible to each other and to me.

What makes a College special? I went to a college where there was a strong sense of community, a particular culture (around engineering), and a place where I had a sense of identity that empowered me. I think that community, culture, and identity are incredibly important parts of education. Our students are showing that in this incredibly difficult time. I am in awe of them.

I also wonder as this virus progresses, how do we support and build community, culture, and identity when we are all in different places? So much of what helped me in my time as a student was the student groups and cross pollination between different ideas and activities. How can we have performances and audiences online and sporting events online? We’re seeing examples. It is an important time to figure it out, and along the way, support our students and help make our corner of the world in academia a little bit better in a terrible time.

Getting the Flu

This week, my whole family came down with the flu. We had flu shots, but the b strain got us. It was a long week, but we all recovered. Everything has been wiped down with bleach or washed. We’re all ready, I think, to return to the world.

For a few days, my son, my partner, and my dog all curled up with me. Everyone felt bad, but I was so grateful to have time with them. The weird gift of the flu was we had time together, albeit while we were ill.

It says something about how crazy things have been that the flu had an upside.

My aunt died on Dec 26th, and since then, every waking moment that wasn’t work has been dealing with her estate. She hadn’t planned on dying, and things weren’t organized as well as she would have liked. I know this because she apologized for that while she was dying. It isn’t bad, but it takes time.

I had to fly to Nashville to close a bank account. I was lucky to have a colleague who generously invited me for a wonderful visit at Vanderbilt, so I was able to do something positive while I was there. I’ve been on the phone more times than I want to count with people who never return my calls about her retirement and about assessing her things. I need to know what will or won’t go to the estate to file estate taxes. I’m lucky that I found a realtor I trust to help get her home ready to sell, but it still takes time to go through her papers, her letters, her photos. The latter two are stored away, but it still took time to figure out what they were, and in some cases, return the letters to her friends who wrote them who have at least a small thing to help remember.

Since December, much of the limited time I would spend with my son and partner haven’t happened. I’ve been paying bills, figuring out tax documents, and trying somewhere in between to keep my head above water at work. There are grants that didn’t get written in all of this. I wonder how I can catch back up.

Then the flu struck, and we were all curled up, sick, but together. We watched Scooby doo. I was really worried about everyone, but at least we were together. That’s the thing. It took the flu to get us to all stop, to get me to stop, and for us to have time together. I need to figure out how to find time when we’re all feeling better to curl up.

Science and Theater in Action

This weekend, Lynn Watson and I held the very first Science and Theater workshop to train graduate students in the College of Engineering and Information Technology and Theater Students at UMBC to work together with middle school science teachers at Arbutus Middle School to develop theatrical performances that demonstrate scientific ideas.

The goal is to find the joy in science, learn to communicate it, and, perhaps, spark new theatrical ideas.

For the workshop, we all spent two and half days doing writing exercises, participating in vocal training, doing improv, and planning for the visits to the school.

After the first full day, I was sore and a bit concerned that this would all turn out. At the end of the workshop, we had a cadre of people full of joy and ready to collaborate. I don’t know what will happen in school, but I am beyond proud of the group. The instructors, students, teachers– every single person worked harder than I’ve ever seen and did things that can be a bit silly and require a good bit of courage. If you doubt me, write something that is deeply descriptive and personal and share it with people you have known for 1 day or do improv with people you’ve known for less than that.

I love science. I love exploring. But, between the heartbreak of experiments that turn out unexpectedly, the seemingly endless grant writing and wondering when you will get the papers completed– it can be frustrating. Thinking about the intersection of science and theater is not easy, but it is joyful. One of the parts of vocal exercises is learning how to create space in your body for your voice. At the end of the exercise, I took up space in a way that I hadn’t in a long time, and I had a newfound voice to go with it. The students, likewise, filled the space and had newfound voices (and a good bit of laughter). It was a pilot, a start, but I have my fingers and toes crossed. Hopefully, we can bring this joy to the classroom.

Finding the incredible in the awful on Christmas Day

Around 11:30 am, just as we were picking up my dad for our Christmas Day tradition of Dim Sum, I got a call. My aunt was going to the ER. We dropped my Dad back at his hotel and headed down to the hospital.

My son and husband parked in the lobby with an ipad and huge lego build. I met my aunt’s former neighbor in the ER. My aunt had called her the night before, and she called me on their way there.

On Sunday evening, my aunt called me. We haven’t talked much in recent years, and late night phone calls were rare. When my mom was alive, late night phone calls went to her and usually involved a DUI or some other event that required a visit to the precinct. I hadn’t expected her to tell me she had some kind of cancer, and it seemed to be in her spine and brain.

We talked, and I called a good friend who is an oncologist, and then I called my aunt the next day. She was scared, but she was seeing an oncologist on Tuesday and hoped they could help. I didn’t call on Tuesday.

I met my aunt’s former neighbor. We had never talked before today. Her aunt used to live next to my aunt, and they got to know each other over the years, and my aunt called her on Christmas eve because she was scared. She came over and spent the night. By Christmas morning, it was clear she was really sick, so she called for help and took her to the hospital. We talked for over an hour about my aunt, families, caring for relatives, and the surprises life brings. She is a phenomenal person.

Tonight, my aunt is in the ICU. I don’t know what the future will bring. Everyone is tired.

The strange thing is there were incredibly beautiful moments today. My son was incredible. My husband was wonderful. The two of them spent many hours finding entertainment in an empty lobby. In between tests, I spent a good part of the afternoon talking to my aunt. We hadn’t talked in a long time, and she hasn’t always been sure of me in recent years, but today, she wanted me to hold her hand, and she asked me to explain what was going on. I was so grateful to be useful.

My mom died in 2008. My aunt, her sister, reminded me more of her today than she ever has before. They were always very different people, but today, I saw the similarities. She’s tough like my mom, and she doesn’t suffer anything from anyone. She can be incredibly kind and generous. She laughs like my mom.

I called a relative I haven’t seen in at least 20, probably 30, years. She, too, was incredibly kind. Nothing like a call about a medical crisis to upend someone’s Christmas, but she talked, and in the middle of things, it was good to talk with her.

It’s been a day of surprises. I’m so grateful for the people whose paths I crossed today– my aunt’s former neighbor, my relative, and my aunt. I wish all of it was under very different circumstances, but I got to spend Christmas with some really special people.

Letters and speaking up

After my mom died, I went through her things, figuring out what to keep, give away, or throw out. In the top drawer of bureau, there was a letter. It was sent to her when she was 19. She kept it until her death. It must have moved with her 10 or 12 times.

The letter was from my grandmother. It explained that my grandmother would not be paying for anymore college because my mom wasn’t listening to her. She was wild and unruly. She smoked. The thing that stood out was that at the end of the list of all of the reasons my mom wasn’t a good girl was the statement that my mom was beautiful, and if she could just keep her mouth shut, she could attract a good man.

When I went to school, my mom went back to college. She took one class a semester. On days I was home sick, I went to class with her. It was deadly boring a lot of time, but she stuck with it. She was in the program so long that they kept changing requirements, and she had to retake her computer class because they had moved away from punch cards. (One of my terrible childhood moments was that I added extra punches to some of her cards and took others out of order to draw on them. My poor mom.)

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting when I was 12 years old. She got her CPA. It was terribly hard for her. Mom wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to sit and study. She was a woman of action at all times. Still, she got through.

She had been out of the workforce for many years. Being my mom didn’t count as a job although I can think of nothing harder. She finally got a job at the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). She wasn’t a stereotypical accountant. She spoke up a lot. She could move the numbers, but she loved the names. She worked on defined benefit plans– plans where participants had been promised a certain pension. Often, companies went under and hadn’t funded their plans. The PBGC guaranteed the plans, but they paid a small fraction of what had been promised. Mom told me that they tried to find the money, and the more money they found, the more the participants got. She loved finding the money. She was restless. She spoke up. People tried to intimidate her, but my mom wasn’t someone who was intimidated. She would get angry. She found the money. Every single time I visited her office, there were flowers from someone thanking her. She made people’s lives better.

I still have my grandmother’s letter. It is part of my mom I didn’t know during her lifetime. What I did know was she always spoke up for me. When I wanted to take a science class, she made sure it happened. When I was told I couldn’t be a scientist she told me how ridiculous it was and pointed out that only the insecure say such things. She went to every parent’s weekend in college and tried every hands on activity in every department. (She said oceanography was always the most fun.)

She spoke up for me. She spoke up for a lot of people who needed a voice. I miss her voice, but I can still hear her. I better get back to work.

What should grad. school be?

I survived grad. school and, ultimately, thrived, for a variety of reasons that rarely had to do with the lab and more often had to do with the communities where I felt I belonged. The things I learned in those communities were the things that make me successful now, and we need to build more of them into graduate school opportunities if we want students to thrive.

Two things in grad. school saved me. The first was theater. In my program, we had to minor in something, and I picked playwriting on a whim. I fell in love not only with the writing but with the community. I became a producer and stage manager for productions and learned how to manage people, run a budget, and get things done on time. All of that has been essential to being a PI.

I also lived with undergrads and a graduate resident fellow. First, getting to know the undergrads, bake cookies, and watch X files was incredible. But I also received training in how to identify issues, and I had a great deal of practice with students who were struggling with school, family, and depression. I learned how to listen, and I learned when to trust my gut and make a call. I’m still very much working on learning to listen, but any success I have with it came from my time with my undergrads. I have to say that when it came time to get my hood, there was no one I wanted to celebrate more than them. I still have the white board, all these years later, where they wrote notes of congratulations after my successful defense.

Right now, approximately 50% of PhDs in STEM fields do not complete their PhDs. That number is horrifying. Not only are graduate students often putting the chance to earn an income and build their life up to the side to pursue their degrees, but there is a huge financial investment from universities and grants that support these students. When students leave, science is often left undone and there is a significant cost to the scientific enterprise beyond the impact on students who are the creative and passionate people who move the discipline forward. You want to know what the next great thing in science is– ask the grad. students. They know, and they know when we’re not treating them well and not giving them the experiences and tools to be successful leaders and innovators.