Chemistry picture of the week: Ugrad-postgrad relations

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Lest I offend through the assumption that I’m referring to undergraduates as pigs (albeit really cute ones), I should begin by explaining the relation of this week’s picture to the title of this post. As a part of orientation week at the University of Melbourne, there were several activities around campus. I personally avoid the O-week activities with the attitude that they’re not really meant for me, but walking past this petting zoo, I just couldn’t resist. It was late in the day so the crowds had dissipated, and the tiny, pudgy piggies were too much for my poor softie heart.

O-week marks the beginning of the first teaching semester. For postgraduates, this is the time we re-adjust to the reality of sharing our campus with thousands of undergraduates. Virtually from November to March, we’ve only shared the campus with academics, administrators and summer semester undergraduates, who are but a small fraction of the whole student body. It’s been blissfully quiet. The commute to campus from the city centre has been swift and comfortable, the walkways have been empty and the lines to food outlets have been short. In the chemistry building specifically, the instruments in the teaching labs have been available at any hour of the day. Starting Monday, all of that will change.

I grudgingly admit to myself that I resent the undergraduates. Firstly, it’s difficult not to feel a little possessive of our habitat, the campus. We’re here every day for most of the year, while most undergrads only share our campus for 24 weeks per year. Surely, that means we have more right to it than they do? Realistically, that’s not true at all — those undergraduates have gained entrance by their own merit, and more than that, are accumulating significant debt just to come here every year. They pay for the operation of the university, and we benefit from the facilities that money buys. If anything, they have more right to this place than we do.

Secondly, a part of my resentment arises from the sheer volume of undergraduate students passing through these buildings yearly. Navigating crowds is unpleasant at best; at its worst, it triggers my anxiety, which can make me a flustered, unproductive mess for the rest of the day. When the vast majority of that crowd is made up of undergraduates, it’s hard not to blame them for that.

The volume of students also makes this resentment easier to cultivate. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that all of those faces in the crowd belong to individuals. Instead, they blur together, lumped into that broad category of “undergrads”. As we know from any sort of discrimination, it is much easier to project your negative feelings onto a group of people if you don’t associate with them personally. Even if unintentional, it’s really about dehumanisation — about talking about a group of people as an abstract label.

I would argue that this detachment between the students and faculty is to some extent cultivated by the modern university system. I feel like instead of being a part of the institution, the undergraduates simply pass through the turning cogs of a degree factory. When tertiary degrees are becoming increasingly common, the volume of students is becoming unmanageable. There is no way we can form personal connections with even just the thousands of first year chemistry students passing through our lecture halls each year. We do make a cursory attempt at it by having those smaller lab classes and tutorials with face-to-face time with postgraduate students as demonstrators or tutors. The postgraduate is still a teacher, though, and holds the undergraduate’s grades in their hands, which makes the relationship loaded. For the undergraduates, it may even cultivate resentment, if they feel that the teacher is not being fair or doing their job adequately.

There are two ways this gap between undergraduates and faculty could be bridged, I think. The first is by a social connection. A chemistry society — or, at the very least, a series of events through the postgraduate society — that involves all of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates would form a community where communication between each group is encouraged.

The second is more personal, and it’s through humility. Remembering that the reason I’m a postgraduate student is because I’m passionate about chemistry and that I want to share that passion with others. The chemistry undergraduates are a perfect audience for that, really, since they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have at least the tiniest interest in science. If I don’t take advantage of a captive audience, well, that makes me a bad science communicator, doesn’t it?

You can leave your opinions in the comments below, contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

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Chemistry picture of the week: CONFIRMED

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After several weeks of working on a written report and a handful of intense days creating and practicing a related presentation, it arrived: the day of my confirmation. Given how nervous I’d been in early January when my supervisor and I reviewed my results, discussed panelists and finally set the date, I expected to be dying of anxiety. Instead, I felt surprisingly calm. I had run through my talk twice in front of audiences, and I’d edited my slides to make sure all the cues I needed were there. The only thing I was unsure about were the questions — you never know what the panel is going to ask. That’s almost helpful in controlling performance anxiety, though, because if you can’t control it, why worry about it?

The talk was scheduled as the first thing in the morning, and I am the furthest you can be from a morning person, but I still arrived an hour and a half early. The hour I spent looking through my slides one last time. The last half hour I spent in the room of my confirmation, strutting about and practicing ballet steps, feigning confidence until the confidence found me. Owning a space you’re about to give a presentation in is really helpful, actually. If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, let it be that dancing in the room you’re about to give a talk in is a great way to get rid of nervous energy and to feel calm and confident.

The talk went well, although not quite as smoothly as the practice talk had gone. My voice went croaky a couple of times, and I had to settle with some less elegant word choices since my brain wasn’t working quite as fast. Still, I talked slowly and evenly, which goes against my natural instincts of prattling off my thoughts as fast as I physically can. I never froze and I remembered everything I had wanted to explain. I’m happy with how I did. I don’t really remember being asked anything difficult about my work specifically. Mostly, they gave me suggestions, which was nice – the perspective of another expert is always welcome. There were a few general chemistry questions about whether I’d considered the oxidation state of my metal and how I could tell the difference. I blanked on my first row transition metals, which annoyed me, especially since I easily listed them later in the day. I’m the type of personality that obsesses over insignificant failures like that, so I keep trying to push it out of my head so as not to get unreasonably angry with myself.

All in all, my panel was, in their words, “impressed” with the amount of work I’d done, commenting that I’d clearly been working hard. That was surprising for me to hear, since even though I know I have been, I didn’t think it showed from the results I had — which, frankly, feel meager to me. A lot of my time has been spent on wrestling with this infuriatingly complicated crystal structure, which isn’t conducive to the production of more concrete results.

There it is, though: my candidature has been confirmed. My panel assessed my work and believed that I could work the rest of the way through to the conclusion of a PhD. No longer a PhD candidate, I’m now a PhD student.

It feels good.

Share your own confirmation stories or questions in the comments, on Twitter with @Lady_Beaker, where I tweet about my daily life as a now-PhD student. You can also e-mail me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com.

Chemistry picture of the week: Australasian Crystallography School 2016

I have quickly gone from not having enough to having too much to talk about. The last two weeks have been busy and intense, and the upcoming six weeks are going to be all that, too. Please forgive me if I can’t find the time or energy to post properly for a while. I’ll do the best I can.

Crystallography school

Can you spot the network topology? Can you recognise the lecturer just from the top of his head? Answers at the bottom of the post!

I’m not sure if I’m more relieved or upset that this past week is now over. It’s definitely been the most intensely tiring week in my life since I was sick last year — but in a good way, where sleeping like a log actually picks you back up again. Yesterday was the last day of the Australasian Crystallography School. I have learnt so much this week, all the way from the basics of X-ray diffraction to the mathematical relationships between real and reciprocal space; from the history of crystallography to practical considerations in modelling, describing and publishing crystal structures.

I have planned for a long time to make an accessible introductory post to crystallography, and I thought that the week of the crystallography school would be perfect. I’d have the best context for it, I thought, and also have all the basic knowledge fresh in my mind. What I’m finding, though, is that my brain feels like it’s tearing at the seams. It’s like I have a squirming bag of facts knocking disjointedly around in my head.

Crystallography is really hard. Although a lot of the processes we use today are automated and hidden beneath the hood of shiny graphical user interfaces, understanding how to make a crystallographic model representative of your crystal and making sure it’s correct requires a lot of understanding of those inner workings. We need to understand the mathematics (to some extent), molecular and lattice symmetry and what the different patterns in diffraction images mean. We need to know about the experimental conditions that affect what we see and how they can make our jobs easier or more difficult. We have to be able to objectively model our structure based on the data instead of forcing it into the shape we want. There are so many things that can go wrong along the way, and we need to be able to troubleshoot.

Because a week is a short, short time for all of that, we were doing long days full of lectures and tutorials with breaks only for coffee (oh so much coffee) or food. I’ve literally filled a notebook with hastily scrawled notes as the lecturers were talking or the tutors were showing me how to do something — not to mention the additional information in lecture notes and the numerous fantastic recommendations for additional literature to give a more in-depth view on certain topics.

Realistically, to get the most out of this fantastic experience, I’m going to need to take a lot of time to digest all the information. That’s going to be a challenge in and of itself, since I think it’ll be important to start doing that as soon as possible — and there is still the looming confirmation, now only less than two weeks away. I’m going to need a lot of mental tenacity to keep with it, but I’m going to try.

What has delighted me the most, though, is that the school also reignited my passion for crystallography. I have lost that not a little in the past year, working on a system that is notoriously complicated — where working on it feels like bashing my head repeatedly at a brick wall. This school is a fantastic reminder of why I do what I do, even if the specific project I’m working on right now feels a bit soul-destroying.

I’d like to thank the Australian Synchrotron for hosting a great school, the school organising committee for nutting it all out and the lecturers and tutors for their respective great sessions. I’d also like to give a special mention to Dr Jack Clegg for the droves of good advice and his patience, and to Dr Alison Edwards also for her advice and fascinating perspectives on science and the scientific community. Prof. Simon Parsons deserves a mention for what were in my opinion the best lectures in the school.

Now for the answers to the questions above: the network has a diamond topology, and the top of the head belongs to Prof. Stuart Batten, my Honours supervisor from 2014.

You can reach me in the comments, by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com and find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.