This has been a good week. Tuesday was my birthday, and I was at an educators’ workshop in St. Louis. After lunch that day, Becky got a classroom full of teachers to sing me happy birthday while I sat in the corner and blushed and secretly enjoyed it. Then, after work, we celebrated by first going to an 80’s-themed consignment shop, then a bar. I bought a t-shirt at the consignment shop that says “Grilled Cheese” with a picture of an anthropomorphic block of cheese with a dental grill. At the bar, I ordered a slice of cake and ate it while the live band played me “Happy Birthday,” and as the night progressed I got to meet a few of the rather colorful locals. When I got back from St. Louis, my awesome roommate had made my bed and there was a festive “Happy Birthday” sign waiting for me.
On Thursday night, my boyfriend took me out to dinner. When he asked me where I wanted to go I told him that I wanted it to be appropriate for me to wear a dress to the restaurant and that I wanted to be able to see the Potomac River from the table. So he made reservations for a restaurant called Sequoia, which is right on the water and has a great view. When we got to the restaurant, though, the hostess sat us away from the window. I was a little disappointed, but willing to settle for the table she gave us, but he talked her into seating us right by the window. It was storming that night and there were huge lightning bolts over the water, which made for a great dramatic dining experience. And, on top of all that, there are plans in the works to go out tonight. I highly recommend having a birthday with this group of people.
On an unrelated note, I left my Nalgene on the Metro this morning at the College Park stop, but I waited for the train to reverse at Greenbelt and come back on the opposite platform, and I found my Nalgene on the train where I left it.
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I have been in DC for six weeks now. I’ve seen some of the monuments, a couple of the museums, gone to some really good restaurants, figured out where to get groceries, and learned how to get around well enough to suit my own needs. So now I feel qualified to voice my one complaint about living in a city like this—the crowds.
I get my groceries at Trader Joe’s because it’s cheap and close and that’s where I used to get groceries in Raleigh. The TJs at Foggy Bottom is always so packed that I don’t have the luxury of being able to wander the aisles and pick out the things I need as I see them. Before I leave the dorm, I have to make a shopping list arranged by location so I can go to the store, quickly push my way through everyone and get the things I need, and get in the line that usually wraps halfway around the store so I can leave as soon as possible.
There are people EVERYWHERE in DC. Driving anywhere is just out of the question. Even looking past the lack of parking, there is always traffic, no matter what direction you’re going or what time of day (or night) it is. Fortunately there’s an awesome public transit system, but it’s always packed too. I find myself fighting pushy commuters during the week and clueless touristy type people on the weekends.
When I got to DC this summer I told myself I would try to take advantage of every opportunity this city offered, and I’ve gotten a chance to do a lot of really cool things. But now, I’m ready for life in the Midwest, where I don’t have to deal with constant crowds and chaos.
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I’ve finished everything I was supposed to do this summer, which is a relief because it means I have time to focus on my final presentation, poster for the AAPT conference, and trips to St. Louis and Ann Arbor. It also means that I’ve gotten a chance to be part of another much larger project that is only tangentially related to mine—Laserfest.
Laserfest is an international celebration of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, and it’s going to take the form of laser themed events and conference appearances all over the world during 2010. Something of this magnitude requires a huge amount of planning, so the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America get together here for weekly meetings discussing funding, partners, events, merchandise, and all the little details that make an event this big run smoothly. Since Laserfest and PhysicsQuest are both laser themed, I’ve gotten to attend most of these weekly meetings since I’ve been here.
I really like being a part of Laserfest, for two reasons. PhysicsQuest is a smaller project, handled by a group of about 4 people. It’s fun to be a part of a project as big as Laserfest, and to see collaborations between different organizations, how big budgets are allocated and spent, and the plans and events that are developed for this celebration.
Also, I agree with Laserfest’s general mission and goals. Last summer, I went on a tour of Fermilab. Our docent first told us about all the financial problems the lab is having, and how they had to lay people off. Then he told us how irritated he was that people, specifically the people funding the lab’s research, wanted justification for fundamental research. (Fundamental research is done with no particular application in mind, except to answer questions and satiate people’s curiosity.) I don’t agree with that mentality at all. It can be frustrating when people aren’t as enthusiastic as you would like them to be about science, but still, there are most definitely reasons to justify any type of research, the least trivial of which are financial. Mike Lucibella, a writer for APS news, told me on Friday that the laser was developed as a result of fundamental research and that Laserfest is going to especially emphasize that point. I hope that it shows the general public that there is a place and a use for this type of research, and it teaches the scientific community that communicating and being patient with the general public will pay off in the end.
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The internship is halfway over! I present to you a (not necessarily complete) list of the free swag I’ve gotten either through APS or SPS. So far, it’s been:
- a red stuffed photon,
- a green stuffed photon,
- Legacy of Light tickets,
- “Gravity gets me down” bumper sticker,
- “Flirt harder, I’m a physicist” bumper sticker,
- “Don’t drink and derive” bumper sticker,
- 2 shiny LaserFest stickers,
- Sigma Pi Sigma thermos,
- “Flirt harder, I’m a physicist” button,
- “Future faces of physics” SPS button,
- “Eclipse: Totality World Tour” SPS t-shirt,
- laser pen,
- SPS LED pen,
- APS LED,
- Physics Today LED,
- Sigma Pi Sigma planner,
- a poncho,
- SPS putty,
- “Celebrate women in physics” poster,
- “How long would you have to yell to heat a cup of coffee?” poster,
- “How much of your body is made of stardust?” poster,
- “Why can you blame lasers for your speeding ticket?” poster,
- “How do lasers take the twinkle out of starlight?” poster,
- “How do lasers create both the coldest and hottest spots on earth?” poster,
- Einstein’s World Year of Physics 2005 poster,
- Uncle Sam Einstein’s “I want you… for science” poster,
- 8th International Submarine Races poster,
- Centennial Timeline of Physics 10 poster set,
- GLAST Frisbee (which my dog is going to love),
- 2 decks of Sigma Pi Sigma playing cards,
- SPS keychain,
- and various free meals and office supplies.
What’s not to love about working in outreach?
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I’ve been in a lot of situations recently where I feel like I haven’t been able to contribute much; I’ve just been along for the ride. But these situations are what you make of them, and it’s amazing how much I’m learning from other people’s experience this summer.
I got to go on two “field trips” this week. On Thursday, Becky (my boss) and I taught a lesson to fifth grade teachers at a Montgomery County Schools Professional Development Workshop. Becky had planned some really cool activities meant to help students overcome common misconceptions with forces. It seems like a lot of people think that outreach is so easy anyone can do it. Ironically, I’ve found that people with this mentality are the ones that could use the most improvement. Among other things, an effective informal educator has to be patient, personable, fun and quirky, sensitive to other people’s backgrounds and insecurities, and knowledgeable enough to be able to explain something several different ways. Becky is the first outreach professional I’ve ever seen in action, and I learned a lot just from watching her interact with the Montgomery County teachers. On the way back to ACP that afternoon, we talked about what’s needed for success in this field. She told me that a personable, bubbly personality helped, but that it wasn’t necessary and that it certainly took all types working in different capacities to make an outreach program work.
Friday, Lauren (the APS science writing intern) and I went to the 10th International Submarine Races at Carderock Naval Surface Warfare Center. I stood around awkwardly and watched while she conducted several interviews with participants and volunteers. I don’t think journalism is ever a field I would go into, which is why it is especially important that I take an opportunity to be “behind the scenes” whenever I can. There’s a lot to be learned from someone that knows how to conduct an interview about how to approach people and get them talking, and those kinds of skills are useful no matter what field you go into.
Besides, I think going out of the office every once in a while is important to my role with PhysicsQuest. After all, what I’m doing is mostly creative so I never know where inspiration’s going to come from, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to come from the walls of my cubicle.
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There’s a reason I decided to pick a major in the sciences. Writing is more difficult, time-consuming, and stressful for me than anything physics has ever thrown at me (something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve seen one of my E&M problem sets). I keep trying though, because I can’t think of anything more important than being able to communicate clearly. So when I accepted an internship here at APS I knew I was going to be challenged, but that my efforts would pay off in the end because I would gain experience and become more comfortable with writing.
In the three weeks that I’ve spent here, I’ve worked on two different products. I usually write extension activities for PhysicsQuest, but when things are slow or I’m feeling inspired I might write a blog post for PhysicsBuzz (physicsbuzz.physicscentral.com). Extension activities are the online physics labs that are meant to be a supplement to the four main activities in the PhysicsQuest kit. I write a lab procedure for middle school students and an explanation of the physical principles for the teacher. Blog posts are supposed to be fun, informative takes on physics news meant primarily for high school physics students. Although these projects require very different styles of writing, I’ve faced the same challenge with both—making my writing accessible to any audience.
Four years of writing for college courses has taught me to essentially flaunt it if I have it. I was encouraged to use technical jargon, long descriptions and material that demonstrated my knowledge of whatever I was writing about, but made my papers mind-numbingly boring. That was fine when professors were my only audience. These are people that have to read their students’ papers (or pawn it off on a TA), and are usually authorities on whatever their students are writing about. Now I’m learning that that style of writing is more or less useless for making people actually want to read what I write. It’s beginning to seem like talent in writing isn’t how much overblown language I can use to confound an idea, but how well I can simplify and communicate any point to any audience in a fun way.
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First, I am from the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. Second, as soon as I turned 15 I got a car, and I’ve had one up until right before this internship started, when I decided to sell it and throw myself on the mercy of public transit. The point is, two weeks of living in DC-- and specifically riding the Metrorail and buses everywhere-- has been an education.
Tuesday morning Erica and I were running late for work, so we commuted together. At Foggy Bottom we watched the doors of the last train to Largo Town Center close in front of us, and then discovered that all the trains after that one were delayed indefinitely. We ended up having to take a train going in the other direction, and transfer to a different line in Virginia. So we went from DC to Maryland via Virginia. And we got separated when we transferred. Erica was standing on the platform intently studying a Metro map and I was standing inside the train with a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face when the doors closed between us. I didn’t realize I was on the right train until one stop later.
Thursday I wanted to go to Reston, VA and had no idea how to get there, but I decided to figure it out as I went along. So I rode the Metro out to Vienna, then started asking people for help. One of the employees told me I had gone two stops too far, but assured me that there would be a bus at West Falls Church. When I got to the right stop there were a ton of people that had just gotten home from work, and no one wanted to help me. I walked out to the bus stop studying four different time tables that I had grabbed at the station, found a bus that would take me to Reston, and jumped on it right before it left. Despite having to ask for help from a 14-year-old reading a Halo paperback and listening to headphones way too loud, I ended up exactly where I needed to go. I could have looked everything up online beforehand, but it’s good mental practice to have to rely on your own wits from time to time. And it was way more fun.
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Last summer, I worked in Prof. Sid Nagel’s fluids lab at the University of Chicago. Sid is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. He has no sense of (or patience for) social formalities, gets really unabashedly excited over the most bizarre ideas, and would rather eat pizza every day than learn how to cook. By all accounts, he acts like a little kid that also happens to be a well-known and well-respected physicist. But I think that mentality is the key to successfully answering the questions of the universe anyway.
One day, in his office, Sid gestured to all the pictures on his walls. At first, they just seemed like beautiful pieces of abstract art, but he told me that they were all data taken from various research projects he was involved with (see At the Breaking Point on AmericanScientist.org). He went on to tell me how important it is to look for the beauty in science, and then display it so that everyone, even people outside the research community, can appreciate it. I absolutely agree with him. If we don’t do this, then physics starts to look inaccessible at best and trivial at worst to people with academic backgrounds different from ours, and we have no one to blame but ourselves when the person on the airplane next to us gets that glazed over look at the first mention of physics.
That’s why I’m really happy to be here, working for the APS outreach department. It’s just as cool as I thought it would be. We have a blog, Facebook, Twitter, LOTS of posters, bumper stickers, shiny things, physics toys, and a bunch of cool people. This summer, I’ll be working on PhysicsQuest, a middle school physics lab that’s based around a comic book-style mystery. This year’s is laser-themed, so I’ll be helping our superheroine, Spectra, defeat the evil Miss Alignment. Since this is my first week, the adventure has just started, but for now I’m looking forward to an action-packed summer, and hoping no one lases an eye out.
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