Piled Higher and Deeper: Diapers and PhDs

Here are two perspectives on the subject:

a graphic essay from phdcomics.com

a written essay from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 7:50 am  Comments (8)  
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Nobel Role Models: Heroes and Heroines?

President Barack Obama wasn’t the only one to receive a Nobel Prize last week.  On Thursday, December 10, the Nobel Prizes in science and literature were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.)

I blogged last week about the value of these individuals as role models and heroes for those of us involved in science. (See “Life Lessons from Laureates “ at the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Careers” blog.)  Over my years as a science writer, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of Nobel Laureates, and I’ve found them to be both gracious and smart.

In addition to Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, whom I mentioned in the ACS Careers blog post as an interviewee and a former teacher of mine, I came across recent information online about two other Nobel Laureates–information that further confirms these two scientists as worthy role models.

First, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, says, “I live a pretty normal life.” As a single parent with two children (ages 10 and 13), she is a role model for all of us seeking to maintain the ever-elusive “work-family balance.”   In fact, she was folding laundry at 5 a.m. on October 5 when she received the telephone call from the Nobel Committee informing her of the news. An article on CNN.com provides more details about this heroine (see “A Day in the ‘Normal’ Life of a Nobel Prize Winner”.}

The second scientist who can serve as a good role model for scientists is Bill Lipscomb.   He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and he’s been a professor at Harvard University since 1959 .  Prior to moving to Harvard, he was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota.

He celebrated his 90th birthday on December 9, with a big celebration given by his “scientific family” (former students, students of students, and students of students of students–his scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren).

When I was a grad student at Harvard, Lipscomb had already received his Nobel Prize, so there was a certain mystique to his research group.  The thing that I remember most about him (in addition to the string tie that he always wore) was his sense of humor, as demonstrated by his leadership role in establishing the Ig Nobel Awards.   If you appreciate good scientific humor (no, that’s not an oxymoron), you’ll want to check out the Ig Nobel website.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Chemistry Demonstrations and Fourth-graders: A Volatile Mixture?

Last week, I attended the regional meeting of the National Science Teachers Association held here in Minneapolis. I enjoyed seeing so many enthusiastic science teachers attending the sessions and wandering around the exhibit hall.

But when did schools start hiring such young teachers? Nearly all of them were quite a bit younger than me. And I’m not that old!   I’m only … well, let’s just say that I’m a seasoned professional.

Instead of feeling old when I left the meeting, however, I felt young and inspired. I particularly enjoyed watching some of the chemistry demonstrations that presenters were teaching to the teachers. As we participated in these hands-on activities, I could sense the energy and excitement rising in the room. It was the same feeling I get when I put on chemistry shows in my children’s classrooms.

I even started thinking back to the first chemistry show I ever witnessed, when I was a fourth-grader at Meeker Elementary School in Ames, Iowa.

Several years ago I wrote up my memories of that chemistry show, and here’s a copy of that brief essay:

The magic of chemistry first reveals itself to me in 1965, during Spring Break of my fourth-grade year, when my family goes on vacation to the big city of Chicago. The highlight of the trip is the visit to the Museum of Science and Industry. As we amble through the museum, we learn about coal mines and submarines. We see a plastic human heart pumping red and blue fluid throughout a life-size model of a human body. We find out about all kinds of machines, from levers and pulleys to the internal combustion engine. And at 2:00 pm, we gather on bleachers in an open area near the lobby to watch a demonstration of “The Wonderful World of Chemistry.”

I’m seated in the front row. Facing us, on a little stage, is a long table covered with glass bottles of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Placed at one end of the table are a banana, a wooden board, and a pink rubber ball. The ball is exactly the same kind as one I use to play “bounce and catch” at home on my front porch.

The noisy crowd of parents and children quiets down as a man in a white coat steps behind the table and faces us. A red rose is pinned to his lapel. A bright blue balloon rises above him, held in his right hand. He’s wearing glasses that have little plastic shields on the side. This man sure has my attention.

He starts the show by pouring two colorless liquids together, turning them first pink and then purple as he says some magic words. As he mixes other liquids and solids, he creates smoke and fog, makes a volcano overflow, and sets off a loud explosion.

Finally, he tells us that it’s time for the grand finale. He still hasn’t touched the banana or ball. I wonder what he’s going to do with them; maybe he’ll give them out as prizes to kids in the audience. I could always use another pink bouncy ball.

He reaches below the table and pulls out a big metal container with a lid on it. He puts on heavy white gloves and uses a long set of tongs to lift the lid off the container. Fog rises from it. Using a metal scoop shaped like the ladle my Mom uses to serve punch at Christmas time, he scoops up some liquid from the container. We can all see that it’s colorless and bubbling. Suddenly he bends over and pours it on the concrete floor right in front of the audience. I can hear it splatter on the floor. I pull back away from it, just like everyone around me. We don’t want to get splashed with this mysterious bubbling liquid. But as soon as it hits the floor, it disappears. It’s gone. None of us got wet, but I did feel a puff of cool air.

The man in the white coat tells us that this liquid is called “liquid nitrogen,” and it’s colder than the coldest Chicago winter. Grabbing the blue balloon, he holds it down on the table and pours a scoop of liquid nitrogen over it. The balloon shrivels up like a huge raisin, making a crinkly sound as it shrinks. The man lets go of it, and it just lies there. But then, right in front of our eyes, it starts to grow, take shape again, and rise into the air.

Next, the man takes the banana. Holding it with his tongs, he lowers it into the liquid nitrogen container for half a minute. When he takes it out of the liquid, he grips it in his gloved hand, and he picks up the board and a nail. Using the “Banana Hammer,” he pounds the nail right into the board. We ooh and ahh and applaud. I guess he won’t be giving out that banana as a prize.

Finally, he reaches for the bouncy ball and drops it in the liquid nitrogen container. After a minute or so, he fishes it out using the metal scooper. Picking it up, he turns around and throws it at the concrete wall behind him. I get ready to grab it when it bounces back toward the audience. But it doesn’t bounce. It shatters into many small pieces. I wonder if he’ll put the ball back together as the grand finale, but it doesn’t work that way, I soon find out.

Before he leaves, however, he has one final demonstration for us. He unpins the red rose from his lab coat lapel, dips it in the liquid nitrogen, and then bangs it on the table. Tiny red pieces of frozen rose petals fly across the table. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clap or cry. As everyone around me begins to applaud, I hesitantly join in. Even if the rose incident doesn’t sit quite right with me, I decide that chemistry is indeed wonderful, and I’m going to learn more about it when I grow up.

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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Making Room for Dad

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at the “Motherlode” Parenting blog at the New York Times website.  The opening salvo in the post, “Making Room for Dad,” reads:

Men should want to be more involved fathers, yes. But women have to let them.

A number of the people commenting on the blog refer to the phenomenon of Moms complaining about Dads not doing enough parenting, but then micro-managing them (and thereby discouraging them)  if they do get involved.  Others, however, seem to feel that men are simply incompetent.

What’s my perspective?  See comment #21.


Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 3:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Letters from Summer Camp

Here’s a link to my recent blog article on the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” parenting blog:  “Letters From Sleep-Away Camp”

Yesterday, my 16-year-old son departed, by bus, for four weeks at a camp in northern Minnesota.  I’ve already checked the camp’s website for photos, and I found one photo of him from the Opening Day.  I’m pleased to see that he arrived safe and sound.

As he posed for this photo, I think he chose body language that would convey as little emotion and information as possible.  Because he had read my blog article about letters from summer camp, he knew that I’d be studying the photo carefully.  Over the next four weeks, we will be engaged in a battle of wits as he tries to confuse me from afar with his micro-expressions.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 8:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Thoughts on Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”

Check out my post on today’s “ACS Careers” blog for some thoughts on Randy Pausch’s inspirational video and book, “The Last Lecture.”  The article is titled “Quadratic Graffiti Inspires Blogger.”

In his life, Pausch beautifully integrated science and parenting.  Although his “last lecture” has inspired millions of people, his motivation in giving this lecture was simply to leave a legacy of his values and wisdom for his young children.

Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 7:11 am  Comments (1)  
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What Mowing the Lawn Can Teach

Here’s a link to my guest blog article, published today in the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” blog.

I’d write more, but I have to go outside and quickly mow my lawn so that it looks halfway decent.

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Dads can have “empty nests,” too.

With another son graduating from high school last week (that’s my third son, one more high school graduation to go), I’m starting to think more about how my life will change when I’m finally living in an “empty nest.”   So, the title of an article on the cnn.com website caught my eye this morning:  “Sex and other perks of empty nesting”

If you read the article (which was originally published in O, The Oprah Magazine), you’ll see that the editor’s highlighting of  “sex” in the title is slightly gratuitous.  But, hey, it got me to read the article.

The article focuses primarily on the experience of mothers.  (Perhaps that’s because Oprah’s audience and market is predominantly female.)  However, I was intrigued to see a recognition that fathers can also experience “empty nest syndrome.”  I’m not surprised that a research study from Wheaton College found that men are usually less emotionally prepared for this transition and more prone to regrets over lost opportunities.  (Of course, it’s probably the case that we men are usually less emotionally prepared for just about any major life transition.)

My first glimpse into the “empty nest” transition process happened seven years ago when my oldest son went away to college.   My essay on that occasion, “Suddenly, It’s Time To Say Goodbye,” still rings true for me.

I’d write more about graduations and empty nests, but I don’t really have time to examine my feelings right now.  I have to get ready for a college graduation in three days (that’s my second son).   It’s a busy and happy month for my family…

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 10:13 pm  Comments (3)  

“The Daddy Shift” by Jeremy Adam Smith

In a two-part series in last week’s “Motherlode” blog, New York Times blogger Lisa Belkin interviews Jeremy Adam Smith, author of a new book titled The Daddy Shift.  The two blog posts are titled  “The Daddy Identity Crisis” and  “More About the Daddy Shift.”

I highly recommend these posts to anyone who wants to learn more about the male perspective on parenting roles in the 21st-century United States. I was particularly intrigued to see the listing of the numerous blog sites that are popping up to present the Dad perspective.

Perhaps I’ve mellowed in my old age, but I detect a different tone to the perspectives of involved Dads who are just beginning their parenting roles now in 2009 (as compared to those of us who began our parenting roles in the early 1990s).  Today’s Dads are a bit less defensive and a bit more confident.  And that’s good.

Is this the same shift and evolution that we saw in the various waves of feminism–a shift from militantism to moderation?

Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 6:02 am  Comments (1)  
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Catching a Baseball

Last weekend, a friend, who was attending a Minnesota Twins baseball game with his son, caught a baseball in the stands.  The next day, as he described the thoughts and feelings that flashed through his mind during those few seconds, it revived a memory of my own experience catching a baseball at a Twins game.

For me, it happened more than a decade ago–before blogs had been invented.  At the time, I wrote a short article for possible publication.  Now, with my own blog, I’m finally getting a chance to “publish” it.  Here it is:


Catching a Dream

It all happens in less than two seconds, without any warning. I’ve waited over thirty years, about one billion seconds, for just this moment. I’ve dreamed about it, prepared for it, and yet I’m still surprised when it happens.

The long wait started in the mid-1960’s, when I attended my first major league baseball game. My Dad and I, along with seven other father-and-son pairs, made the 200-mile trek from central Iowa to Metropolitan Stadium, home of the Minnesota Twins. Our seats were high in the stands, far down the right field line.

Following my Dad’s advice to be prepared, I had brought my baseball glove. I wore it religiously, always ready to catch a foul ball hit my way. Between innings, I slipped it off and quickly ate my hot dog and Frosty Malt. By the time the leadoff batter stepped up to the plate, the glove was back on my hand.

If I could just catch a ball, I would prove to my Dad and everyone else that I was prepared and that I was someone special.

I came home from that first game with a new Twins cap and a Twins victory. It was a great day, but it hadn’t been perfect. I didn’t catch a ball.

The next year, our father-son group made the same trip. This time I came home with a tiny 12-inch souvenir bat signed by Harmon Killebrew—but no ball. A pattern was being established.

Throughout my childhood, I faithfully brought my glove to every game. Eventually, however, my dream of bringing home a baseball faded and slipped away.

Three decades have passed, and I’m back in Minnesota. I’m becoming a Twins fan once again, after years of living on the East Coast and cheering for the Boston Red Sox. Metropolitan Stadium has long ago been torn down, replaced by an enclosed dome. Now there is a huge video screen in left field, where we all watch replays and look for our faces when the cameras sweep across the crowd between innings.

The Red Sox are in town, and my Dad has purchased three good seats—twenty-five rows up, just to the right of home plate. We make it a three-generation event—Dad, me, and Erik, my nine-year-old son. I tell Erik to bring his glove. “You should always be prepared,” I remind him. Just to prove the point, I grab my glove.

As we take our seats, I put on my glove and talk to Erik about the importance of being prepared. This is a major life lesson that I feel compelled to pass on to the next generation.

As I settle into the middle decades of my life, however, I am having doubts about the whole notion of “being prepared.” I used to think I could plan carefully for the future and thereby make my dreams come true. The events of the past few decades—getting married, having four children, zigzagging along several career paths, getting divorced, becoming a single father—have proved how unpredictable and uncontrollable life can be. I’m beginning to wonder why I spend time and energy holding on to dreams when life can take a sudden strange turn at any moment.

I don’t confide these misgivings to my son—or to my father. Instead, I bring my glove to the game and remind them both to be prepared. Between innings, however, I hide my glove in my lap. I don’t want the television camera to catch me, a respectable adult, wearing a baseball glove like a little kid.

It’s the seventh inning and the Twins are up to bat. Suddenly, without warning, it happens.

A fastball is fouled almost straight back. It zooms just to the right side of the protective screen behind the plate. I see it climbing toward me, skimming over the heads of the fans in front. It must be moving 80 miles an hour, a dangerous missile. In the scant two seconds that it takes the ball to travel to me, I have time for only three thoughts—”This could be it. Stand up. Put your glove out.”

The ball comes so quickly. I don’t have a chance to think back to that first Twins game thirty years earlier. I don’t have a chance to consider what lessons about life my son might learn from this moment. I don’t have a chance to contemplate my own mid-life doubts about fate and personal power. I just have time to stick out my glove.

Thwap!! I catch it right in the pocket of my glove. I don’t believe it’s really there until I reach in and pull it out. The fans around me are cheering. I feel flushed, excited. Should I stand up and acknowledge the applause? I glance at the big video screen to see if there will be a replay—the screen is advertising a local tire company. Confused, yet proud, I hold up my glove and wave it.

During the rest of the game, I keep touching the ball, examining it. It says, “Official Baseball, American League.” It’s scuffed and dirtier than I expected, not flawless and unblemished like in my dream.

I show it to my Dad and my son. I smile and relax.

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm  Comments (1)