The hardest thing for me, when I moved to grad school, wasn't even on my list of "things that could possibly go wrong". And being an inveterate worrier, that list was pretty long. That hardest thing? Developing a successful network of relationships.

I mean, after all, though I'm not exactly socially ept, throughout high school and college, I'd dropped right into a large, nerdy, friendly group of people to hang out with and to get support from when I needed it. I assumed the same would be true in grad school. And that was false.

Before grad school, the largest group of my friends at any given time came from school, as I suspect is true for most people. Neither my high school nor my college was particularly large, but contained people with varied interests—writers, linguists, theater folk, biologists, historians, musicians, sailors, etc. I took classes in a wide range of things, and made friends in those classes. However, in grad school, the people I saw day in and day out, in class, doing homework, in the lab—they were all physicists. And since grad school is such a time suck, I pretty much spent all my time with physicists.

Now don't get me wrong. I love physicists. I am a physicist—it's not just a job, but also an identity. But I was starving, socially, when all my social activity came from my department. It took me the better part of a year to figure out what was wrong and how to start to go about fixing it. I'm not even sure I've fixed it now, but it's much better than it was that first year. The fix was really to focus on generating and maintaining relationships outside of school: the variety of people I need in my life to be happy were mostly there, but because I didn't see them every day or around campus, those relationships were withering. It's not easy, particularly for someone as introverted as I am, but the payoff has been worth it.

So, three tips for building and maintaining relationships in grad school:

1. Build boundaries about when you work and when you don't. If you schedule time that isn't for work/work people, it's way easier to find and see people outside your program. Also, it's good for your sanity.

2. Find a good coffeeshop or five. Or a good bar or five. NOT on campus. Hang out with people there. Even if you are hanging out with grad school people, the mere fact of being away from school tends to loosen people up and bring out the parts of them that aren't about school.

3. Hobbies are hard in grad school, because of the time factor; however, they are a great way to find people outside your program. But be careful about your institution's various clubs and teams: many will be full of undergraduates, which isn't a bad thing, but can be disappointing in its own way.

All those are pretty general, but I want to have one last word about relationships and identity. I was also starving because, though I am white and male—typical in physics—I am also trans and queer and Christian—not typical, to put it mildly. I don't necessarily feel comfortable among my physics friends being vocal about those identities, not because people are bigoted or mean, but because my physics friends just don't Get It. This put extra emotional pressure on me. I can imagine that people who are gender minorities or racial/ethnic minorities or other minority categories in their field might feel the same way. I don't think the solution is any different—make a variety of friends, probably some of whom are those minority categories—but I do think that it's important to be aware of that effect and that it can wear you down, even if you don't think it will.
Oh, Friday. Where did you go? Right, that vaguely drunken haze I didn't know I needed until I did it.

Back on the posting wagon!

I went to a panel by my department on race and physics this week, and was pleasantly surprised for a number of reasons. Firstly, how much our old, white, male, formal-but-kind department head Got It. I mean, he managed to strike a good balance between looking back and looking forward, and also what is feasible for a major research university (e.g. build relationships with HBCUs to get minority students to apply to us) and what we cannot do (e.g. fix the K-12 education system).

I was also surprised at how little I cringed during the discussion of excellence versus diversity, in particular because I really felt that there were people there backing up my position that increasing diversity does not dilute excellence and that that basic idea permeated the whole discussion. Of course, there were a few who didn't really get that, but they were mostly called on it.

It was a really good experience for me, particularly in light of the bad experiences with panels like this that I've had around both race and women in science before. It also makes me hopeful that our department head might be open to addressing what I see as a problem with representation of less visible minorities—particularly BTGL folk and disabled folk and so on. I hope that I can get the courage up to email him or speak to him about this, but it's so hard when it's so personal, and I feel very gutless about it, even when I know that it's going to be OK.

Old School

Jun. 19th, 2009 08:41 am
There are some things I really love, like when scientists put old-school methods to new and interesting purposes.

In that vein, I just heard about a group in Japan that is using emulsions to do dark matter detection. (paper here) This is basically the physics equivalent of saying you're going to fire up your vacuum tubes to surf the internet. It's Steampunk Science.

An emulsion detector is essentially a type of photographic plate (well...cube, really) in which some material is exposed to some particles and the particles interact with the material and leave tracks which can be reconstructed after development of the emulsion. Now, emulsions were popular in the middle of the last century to do collider and nuclear physics; you could track the stuff coming out of a collision. They got outmoded as electronics got more sophisticated and as speed of reconstruction became a bigger deal.

However, because dark matter events are rare (by, you know, definition) emulsions are a reasonable way to look for these things. And so this group has revived this old technology and improved it by increasing the granularity of the detector and developing an automatic scanning technique so they can detect the short tracks from dark matter and reconstruct the direction. And a cool thing about dark matter is that there is a prediction for a preferred direction for dark matter recoils; because of the rotation of the galaxy, dark matter should look like a wind blowing in one direction. So if you can reconstruct the direction, you get a much, much better handle on whether what you're seeing in the is dark matter.

Now, who knows if this'll work out in the long run. There are several other directional experiments in the works. But I do love and respect how this group has learned from the past and repurposed it for the future. nearly gone, at least in the US, so says a new study. (Abstract linked, full article behind a pay wall, summary blog post)

In short, the study finds that boys and girls score the same on math standardized exams through graduation from high school, and that they are taking calculus classes at the same rate. The study then goes on to test the hypothesis that the averages are the same, but that men have a larger standard deviation, and so there are more math geniuses that are men, and finds that, while there are more men than women above the 95th and 99th percentile, that ratio has changed with time and with culture of origin, indicating that this is likely a culturally derived factor.

I find this to jive strongly with my experience. I work in physics, a STEM field with a poor reputation for gender equality, and currently at an institution that is below average, even for our field, even while it is a top-ranked department.

As both a graduate student and as an undergraduate student, I earned a reputation among my peers for being at the top of my class. But I noticed a marked difference between undergrad (when I lived as a woman) and grad (when I live as a man) in how my peers treated that reputation. As a grad student, it was treated matter-of-fact: someone's got to be at the top, eh, it's him. As an undergrad, it was treated as a bit of a challenge to the boys in my class. Not all of them, but some.

I will say, with some relief, that this isn't true for my research groups. I talk more, and have more responsibility now, but I attribute that to being a grad student, rather than an undergrad. I'm supposed to have more responsibility. I think part of the reason for this is that I've worked in two extremely female-friendly groups. My current group has 50% female professors, which is unheard of in my field. My undergrad group was 75% female grad students. With numbers like those, you don't get anywhere if you don't respect and listen to the contributions of women.

All of which is to say that both the numbers and my personal experience uphold the idea that it is cultural factors holding women back from numerical equivalency in STEM fields, both cultural ideas about what women can do and "lifestyle factors" (the ever-popular euphemism for, "hey, some people want to have kids and a life AND do science").

Now, this isn't a new thought for a trans man to have; Ben Barres has advocated this view for a long time. But I feel that it's worth repeating, because while the plural of anecdote isn't data, we're far enough apart in academic careers and fields that I'm adding more perspective.
I spent some time trying out names for this place, mainly while I was sitting around waiting for code to compile or run. I wanted something that reflected my love of physics and something about gender/trans identity. I finally settled on "twostatesystem" because the two state system is something that is incredibly important in both physics and gender in Euro-derived cultures*. And yet, in both cases, the two state system is at best an approximation and at worst a lie.

A two state system in physics is one in which the Hamiltonian (a construct which describes the dynamics of the system, including the energy of the system) gives rise to two different energy levels. This is one of the few systems in quantum physics that can be solved exactly and gives us insight into many problems in physics, including (and notable for me), oscillation between two neutrino flavors. Using the two state system approach, an incredible amount of progress was made in understanding neutrinos and their oscillatory behavior. Nevertheless, the complete picture of the neutrino sector is not a two state system. It's a three (or possibly more!) state system with more complicated (and interesting) dynamics.

I feel much the same about the binary system of gender we experience in Euro-derived cultures. We divide ourselves up into two states, men and women, and analyze so much of our experience through the lens of that two state system that we forget that it's at best an approximation. Cultural analysis by feminists and other people interested in gender has done well under this approximation. We cannot understand the full impact of gender on ourselves and our culture by clinging to these two states, even as we recognize that sometimes, yeah, we can use that lens.

Furthermore, I think that one of the most important things I've learned from studying physics is that it is absolutely vital to know the boundaries of where your approximation is valid—after all, as one of my undergraduate professors once said, "Well, we're physicists. When confronted with an intractable problem, we only do one thing: approximate." I think that you can replace "physicists" in that sentence with "people" and it still contains a whole lot of truth. But, I don't think that as a community of gender thinkers, we've learned how to understand those boundaries of approximation yet. I think we're still struggling to understand, and failing in a whole lot of cases. And it's a whole lot more risky to approximate with human lives; if your assumptions exclude people of color, that causes way more suffering than if your assumptions exclude a fourth neutrino species.

I don't know yet if understanding and being explicit about underlying assumptions and boundaries of approximations will result in progress (for some unspecified definition of progress) . I only know that it feels right and necessary, coming out of my academic tradition, and that it's something I would like to see a whole lot more of. Now, if only I knew how to do it.

*a better term, I feel, than "Western". I'm talking here about cultures where the primary historical influence is Europe. This is not to say, of course, that what I'm saying applies in whole to ALL those cultures, nor that it doesn't apply to non-Euro-derived cultures. But my lived expertise is in dominant US culture and parts of European culture, so that's what I'll talk about.
Probably not.

However, I've noticed a dearth of blogs by a) trans men b) trans scientists c) physicists anywhere in the BTGL* community. Being all three, and "be the change", blah blah blah, here I am.

So, who am I?

I am a graduate student in physics, studying neutrinos and dark matter at a major American university. I'm interested in the matter of the universe that takes up quite a bit of the energy budget of the universe, but is invisible to us thus far. I am also an experimentalist, which means that I'm doing actual experiments—I go out with actual objects and look at actual signals. Together, these things mean that I spend the vast majority of my time measuring zero, debugging my software, and trying to figure out where my light leaks are.

I am also a trans man. I spent the first 22-ish years of my life living as a woman in America; I now live as a man. Beyond that, I'm unwilling to divulge details of my gender and sex, even in the relative anonymity of the internet.

I do not think these two facts of my life are necessarily related or should be related, but they, in some ways, are. First of all, physics (and especially my university) has a gender problem, and I'm interested in the way my experience interacts with that problem. Less talked about is the fact that I know very, very few physicists that id as LBGQ. I'm also interested in the interaction there, though as a straight guy, I may have less to say about that. So, I'm hoping to post about the interaction between the scientific establishment and gender and sexuality.

However, I also want to post about things that are one or the other, interesting new results, trans issues in general, gender issues in general, and so on. My aim is to have one major post a week, with other small posts to supplement that. We'll see how it goes.

*I have problems with this terminology and grouping. Nevertheless...hardly anyone.



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