Week Ten: Notes, Errata, and Miscellany

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Thursday, August 8, 2019


Joseph Tibbs

Welcome to the appendices.  The endnotes.  The things that most people don’t read when they finish a book, because the story is over, and they’re ready to move on.  But this summer was more than just a story which I experienced, chronicled, and finished neatly with “and they’ll all live happily ever after”.  It’s just one chapter in a much larger work.  Despite that, here I’ve compiled a few notes, corrections, and random reflections.  Each of the notes links back to one of my previous blog postings, where I’ve added an appropriate superscript reference, but they also stand alone as a look back on what happened this summer, so don’t feel the need to re-read all of my posts just to understand this one.  The errata are the things I didn’t quite get right the first time around (as so often happens).  And the miscellany are things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else.  If you don’t want an extended walk down memory lane, just scroll to the very bottom, where you’ll find a final example of my now storied story-telling style.  

Thank you for taking this journey with me over the last ten weeks.  I hope it’s been as fun to read these as it’s been to write them.



1. On the first blog post, I included a shout-out to my “rural Iowa background”.  Now that I’m back in Iowa on the farm I call my home, I come to reflect again that, no matter how long I spend away from it, coming back always makes me feel as though I never left.  The corn is tall, the kittens are playing, and the same sun that shone so brightly on the streets of D.C. lights the dusty gravel roads of my childhood homestead.  But it also reminds me that, as long as I’m with people who matter to me, anywhere and everywhere can be home. 

2. Week two’s blog was already worried about time flying, but I stopped myself from getting too worked up over it yet, and said that nostalgia and goodbyes were for the tenth week’s post.  Well, here we are.  My goodbyes have been said—to my fellow interns, to my mentors, to the wonderful leaders of the SPS intern program.  And nostalgia for this summer will remain with me for the rest of my life.  But I’m not sad.  Because I know that, far apart as we may be, we’ll see each other again.  And in the meantime, the modern wonders of technology are there to connect us.   

3. If you noticed a trend in my posts, it was that every week there was some food event going on, eventually dubbed the “community dinner”.  Working at NIST, I didn’t get to see most of the other interns during the week.  However, taking one night out each week to plan, prepare, and eat food together was the perfect way to bring everyone together for a little bit of fun between each weekend. There was a community dinner in the final week—it was a potluck as suggested by Gia, who made an excellent stir-fry with her extra shrimp and a communally collected batch of vegetables reminiscent of the old stone soup story.  Hearkening back to a different community dinner, we watched part of the Democratic Debate that night, but eventually we took time to hold a ceremony of our own. 

4. A love of music united us this summer, and our interests and experiences ranged widely, from Week Three’s orchestra concert to the fast-talking lines of Hamilton songs during Karaoke nights.  If you click on some of the links earlier in this final post, you’ll find a few songs I love (and that seemed relevant, topically).  Gia, the person who suggested the potluck dinner, got us involved in a potluck of a different sort: we contributed songs to a collective playlist.  Not only that, but we made a game of guessing which song was submitted by each intern.  The prize for the most accurate guesser, which went to none other than my very own roommate Nicholas Stubblefield, was an artistically rendered Certificate of Excellence in Things That Don’t Really Matter, which was presented in the ceremony described in the next note.  

5. I loved getting to watch the debate(s) with a group of such interesting, politically-minded individuals.  It allowed me to see both sides: the gravity of the issues being discussed, and the levity of some of the circumstances the debate created between candidates.  On the last Wednesday, during the potluck, we also watched a part of the debate.  But we weren’t really into it, interested as we were in making the most of the remaining time we had with each other.  At the end of that night, once almost all of us had assembled, was the time for awards and revelations: our personal farewell ceremony.  One by one, the songs in the playlist were aired, and after some guessing, the owner of the song was revealed.  They shared their least favorite and fondest memories of the summer, and were finally awarded a paper plate adorned with a specially-chosen accolade, designed and masterminded by Cate.  It was all in good fun, and though it wasn’t exactly the Oscars, everyone enjoyed their moment in the spotlight.

6. The final presentations at the symposium were bittersweet: we had the opportunity to share the work we had done over the last ten weeks, and everyone was impressed by the variety and depth of topics covered.  Each presenter showed their unique strengths, and gave the audience a picture of just how impactful this internship program was for us, career-wise.  But I think what came through to the audience even more strongly was the bond we had with each other.  The intern presenter often elicited laughs from the rest of us, or gave specific mentions to members in the group.  Speaking up there was like talking to a group of friends—because no matter how many CEO’s or Nobel Laureates were in the crowd, at the very front were the sixteen people we’d grown most close to over the last ten weeks.

7.  I never did describe what it was like to see the monuments late at night with a group of friends.  I don’t think I can, honestly, or at least not in a way which would do it justice.  Especially not after the final night we all spent in DC together, which contained some trivia (thanks to Jackie), some good food (thanks to Cate) and a late-night stroll on the National Mall.  Although sitting behind the Lincoln Memorial, dangling my feet in the WWII Memorial fountain, and watching Jerry and Eric get a little too adventurous was all well and good, what mattered most was the conversations we had.  The little things, reassuring each other that no matter what happened, this summer would still matter.  That we wouldn’t forget.  

8. Thursday night concluded with a quiet movie showing—most of us were busy packing or preparing for the presentations the next day, but we couldn’t resist the chance to have one more film shown in room 211.  Our choice?  National Treasure.  First, because we had learned firsthand all about the case where the Declaration of Independence is kept—because it was designed and built at NIST.  Second, because all of the locations we saw in the film’s DC setting were places that at least one of us had been.  Various of the interns filtered through the room during the showing, but for the last 45 minutes or so, all that were left were the dream team of my fellow apartment-mates.  It was fitting, I think, to sit in the dark with these three wonderful guys and watch Nicholas Cage find gold and silver of incalculable worth.  Because the four of us knew that we had discovered a treasure of a different type, but one just as invaluable.  

9. Without a doubt, I will miss the other interns.  Our goodbyes, strung as they were throughout Friday night and Saturday morning, were all heartfelt.  My final words to Nicholas were, to quote his beloved phrase, “Have a swell one.”  And so, to all the interns who may be reading this, I hope you too are having a swell one in the weeks (or months, or years—whenever you may be reading this) after the internship.  Keep in touch; I’m always just an josephltibbs [at] gmail.com (email) away.



a. The first correction: Brad Conrad isn’t “Illustrious”.  I think referring to him that way gives the impression of a pretension that is so far from the truth as to be insulting.  The second correction: I failed to tell you why he is such an inspiring individual.  There’s a particular type of person who is truly excited to help others.  Someone who is genuinely enthusiastic about the good they can do, and about living their life to make an impact.  Brad is one of those.  And he does it so well because he’s humble about it—but not the awkward, smarmy humility of someone who denies their own achievements.  No, Brad is just humble enough to listen, and to notice others before himself.  Over the rest of the summer, he was a true inspiration, and I would just like to say here that I appreciated everything he did for us. 

b. Joe Kopanski was my mentor this summer, but I only mentioned him once, in week two.  Don’t let that fool you—my second mistake was not taking more time to thank him for all he did.  He’s the director of the nanoscale imaging group, which means he has multiple labs (with associated PI’s, grad students, and even interns) which answer to him.  And yet, he took time out to sit with me downstairs in the lab, sometimes for hours, when the machine wasn’t working the way we thought it should.  More than that, he trusted me enough to work on it even when he wasn’t there.  He gave me independence and the opportunity to explore ideas I was interested in.  And that is the environment in which I work best.  In the end, he became a mentor who I felt I could look up to and who I truly appreciated during, and after, the summer.

c. Remote Bias Electrostatic Force Microscopy was not an idea I came up with—don’t get the wrong impression here.  It was something a postdoc from last summer was experimenting with, and he got enough results and data to make graphs and the beginnings of a paper.  However, when he left for the greener pastures of a semiconductor manufacturer in Colorado, he left very few notes on what he did to achieve those results.  So it was back to the drawing board in some ways, but I think I exaggerated the novelty of the technique back in week three’s blog post.

d. If I could go back and do it all again, one error I’d like to correct was the way I always dominated (and not always in the good way) the engineering challenge at trivia nights.  I took ownership of the materials, the design process, and the building, every week we were at The Big Board.  Looking back, I realize it was supposed to be a team effort.  I eventually received my comeuppance for that in the final week: the aluminum boat idea I had was excellent in theory, but fell apart in practice.  Literally.  In blowing it across the tub of water, my first breath on it was too forceful, and the whole thing collapsed into a sodden lump of foil.  Bells, on the other hand, who built a boat for fun, used similar principles but an idea I had dismissed—and her boat had the fastest time of anyone’s.  Lest you think that our final night at The Big Board was a total loss, fear not: through the formation of a Megateam®, our collective science knowledge was enough to answer 14 of the 15 trivia questions correctly, and my complete failure at the engineering challenge didn’t matter a bit.  We still won.  And, since I’ve been doing thank-you’s here in this section, I’d like to acknowledge one Eric F, bartender and purveyor of the finest tacos, and also the guy who deals so patiently with the batch of nerds who wash up on his doorstep every Tuesday night.  We made sure to thank him that night, and since we’d kind of become regulars there, he said he would be sad to see us go.  As our prize, instead of the usual $25 gift card, he asked if we would like some swag.  The answer was a unanimous yes.  So I am now the proud owner of a frisbee advertising a brewery.  I couldn’t imagine a more fun souvenir. 

e. I most certainly did not.  Go running again, that is.  Sorry, Week Seven Joseph. 

f. Another note is in order to thank my fellow interns for the delightful blog posts they put out.  I think the experience of reading others’ posts showed us the variety of our experiences, allowed us to appreciate what we had been given, and brought us closer together.  I’ll miss getting to read the updates from everyone, but hey—I guess that’s what Facebook is for.



 Siamese are a breed of cat, but I learned this week that their distinctive color patterning is due to genetics which can also pop up, rather unexpectedly, in a population of barn cats.  The coloring we all associate with Siamese is called, among cat (and rabbit) experts, “pointed”, meaning that dark fur is found on the ears, paws, tail, and face of the cats.  On our farm, we’ve had a few pointed cats, and the most recent one is a kitten named Gale (after a King of Narnia).  I’d never given much thought to the coloration before, but something my sister said recently as we were checking on little Gale and his sibling made me ask her about it.  For context, my sister loves genetics and she loves cats; knowing everything there is to know about why they are the way they are is her passion.  So although it was no surprise that she knew these things, the facts themselves surprised me very much:

 Siamese cats are albino, by definition.  They lack pigment in places normal cats would have it.  For that reason, any type of cat coloration you see has a “Siamese” or pointed version, where the cat will be white all over their body but have points of their particular color and pattern on their extremities.  So tabby, calico, or “yellow” (called red in the genetics literature) points are all possible.  Our Gale is just an ordinary gray on his ears, paws, and face.  But I learned that he was born pure white.  Maybe that doesn’t seem odd—after all, human eye color and hair color change as they grow through babyhood.  But I learned that it’s not so simple. 

 The albinism of the Siamese is temperature-dependent.  Pigment is deposited in fur which is below a certain threshold temperature.  That’s why the extremities of the cat, like their big, thin ears, are colored.  It’s why they’re born all-white—the inside of their mother was very warm indeed.  It’s why they will have eyes that glow red in reflected light for the rest of their life—they don’t have any pigment inside their eyes to block the natural red of the blood vessels behind.  If you shave a portion of a pointed cat’s fur, the skin there will be cold and the fur will grow back with pigment.  A creative cat owner with a small trimmer could stencil dark fur onto their cat in the shape of anything.  My recommendation would be to give them a large “π”, so you could joke that they’re a Pi-amese.   

 Where am I going with all of this?  Am I going to somehow relate cat coat genetics back to the transition from this summer to “normal life”?  Is there a larger metaphor here about the unexpectedness of life’s complexity?  Am I going to pull out a paragraph of my typical philosophical ramblings and suddenly the rationale will be clear?

 No.  I just wanted to share something cool I learned.

 Because something which this summer taught me—amidst the things I learned from my new friends and the skills I gained on the job—was that I love getting people excited about science.  About things that are unexpected but beautiful in the world around us.  Call it some kind of vicarious curiosity on my part.  And so I just wanted to share this wonderful bit of cat trivia with you for its own sake. 

 As much as I’ve written, I feel there is still more to tell.  Which is why I’m going to stop myself here and tell as much as I can in the form of (you guessed it): a gratuitously incomprehensible run-on sentence!

 In the last week, we: sang like no one was watching, didn’t waste our shot, drank too much iced tea, spiked some ice cream, found some bespoke tacos, got our feet wet, slid onto history, 30-rocked, ate everything in the house, drank dragon yum-yum, folded pyramids of thanks, stole the Declaration of Independence, shouted at some ducks, hugged a column, looked at the stars, rewrote the stars, infected an insect, won some Light trivia, signed bucket hats, got some personalized books, put zucchini and bananas in (separate) bread products, theorized an anti-physicist named Mbundu, got Eric’s t-shirt wet, bought a pineapple (and put it on pizza), parkoured, donated some black beans, made a time capsule, hugged, group hugged, hugged again, promised to keep in touch, parted ways, and most importantly, 1, 2, 3:




Nicholas and I went to (on Brad's recommendation) a fantastic restaurant right across the road from NIST.  I was just old enough to partake in what they specialize in: craft ale.
This deer is one I saw often near Newton's apple tree (in the foreground).  On the last day of work, we said a fond farewell.  Or, I just awkwardly took pictures of him.
This is a panoramic photo from inside the really cool spot to eat lunch on NIST's campus.  Yup--you're inside a tree.
My paper plate award.  Hopefully inspired by how often I explained interesting science or fun facts, and not how often I made up stories to create an alibi for our group when questioned on our activities by government agencies.  No, that didn't happen.
The final morning of room 211. I'll miss 'em.  For anyone who wonders, we did not steal that road sign--it was found out in the hallway of Shenkman after move-out and we decided to adopt it.  Made for a good photo-op, anyway.
One of our kittens, Gale.  Visible in the picture are his slowly darkening ears, paws, and face.

Joseph Tibbs