Monday, April 30, 2007

Dream job?

Today I did something I haven't done in a very, very long time. I updated my cv and applied for a job. WS has done the same - it turns out they are advertising 5 jobs at the same time, at a top research university, in our favorite country. Unfortunately, our chances of getting two offers are virtually zero. It is a country where I know very few female professors, even less married ones, and none with more than one child. They have absolutely no plan for hiring couples; in fact, the expectation is that a wannabe professor should be free to move from one side to the other, and the way taxes work means that if the professor's spouse stays at home the professor's income receives a bog boost.
Of course despite the law being framed in completely gender neutral terms, the not surprising upshot is that women professors are few, far between, and childless.
Looking at my cv I was less than impressed. You can almost recognize my children's faces in the big, gaping holes: in the publications list, but also in the participation to conferences, periods of study aborad, etcetera. Now I have started being productive again, although as usual it takes longer than I thought. Yesterday I worked the whole day, so hard that I got a backache. Today I took it a bit easier. I have also decided to study a new topic, like if I were a student, from scratch. So now I'm going to switch off the computer, and go buy a new notebook and a few coloured pens: I was able to learn new stuff at 18, so I will just do what I did then, and hope it works.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Healthy relationship with advisor

I laughed so hard when reading this PhD Comicstrip. I score 4, and I can't imagine how I forgot the name of my advisors' advisor (actually, I am uncertain between two). It might help that the answer to questions 1 and 2 is the same for my advisor and me.
Even sadder, I think most of my students score 4 on me. But the answer to question 5 is really secret.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Does anyone remember how women got the right to vote?

This almost brought tears to my eyes. Especially since the vote to women in my country was granted after my own mother was born. And I'm pretty sure we didn't learn almost anything about the suffrage question at school, especially not that it involved violence, and special leigslation, and it took so damn long.

Are wet nurses really back?

So now everybody's discussing whether it's moral/sanitary/yucky to have a woman other than the mother breastfeed a baby. As someone who has personally breastfed her own babies (no outsourcing here!) I have a pretty clear opinion about this.

I don't find it yucky, either in the for-pay or in the for-free version. It has been done for centuries. In an ideal world, all mothers would be able to nurse their own kids all the time, but there are many reasons why this is not the case and outside help is required. I find somebody else's breast milk less yucky than formula.

The sanitary reasons seem bogus. Most women don't have any condition that can be transmitted via breast milk, and most of those who do either know that or can easily find it out: for instance, in my country every pregnant woman is routinely HIV-screened, and a woman who hasn't been pregnant can't breastfeed.

Also, I think a lot of what we hear about having kids grow up in a sterile environment seems grossly exaggerated. Newborns, especially preemies or kids who already have health problems, must of course be sheltered, and for them a milk bank offering pasteurized breast milk seems a very good option; but elder kids aren't that delicate.

At age 7 months my daughter would happily crawl on all fours on the playground, where older kids were or had been running together with their parents; when she was tired, she would sit up and suck her unwashed thumb. She didn't get any disease at all. And she kept being nursed for many months after that; I don't see how sucking another (averagely healthy) woman's breast would have been worse for her.

To this must be added that I loved breastfeeding, and never had problems with it. Had I been born a few centuries earlier than I was, I would have been a partial invalid due to my poor eyesight. Also I am not good at most physical work, which is what my (largely illiterate) ancestors did until the generation before mine. But there is one job that I could have done with pleasure and success: the wet nurse!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Household duties and mathematical life

Here I try to focus on my work as a mathematician, but of course I also have the duties of every normal human being. In particular, today I spent quite a lot of time doing my laundry with an unfamiliar machine, and even more drying it with very mysterious objects (a real waste on a dry and sunny day).

As part of my lesser duties to the mathematical life, I went to lunch with a group of colleagues, and attended a really good talk by a young member of the Institute I'm visiting.
I have a long-standing prejudice that dutch mathematicians are trained to become really, really good lecturer: it goes back 20 years now, and the counterexamples (if any) are few and far apart. Today's talk confirmed the prejudice: it was very clear, extremely well organized, and managed to finish quite on time.

I received a sad email telling me that one of the top two applicants for our forthcoming postdoctoral position has accepted a (much better) offer somewhere else. I must admit not being too surprised, since I thought he was way too good for us; still, I hope the other outstanding candidate doesn't vanish the same way.

I have started studying a very beautiful book that a colleague has lent me: unfortunately, the library here doesn't have it, and as usual buying it will take at least two weeks. Of course had I been staying in the US I would have gotten it tomorrow (and cheaper too). It is part of the work for the project with UCo, and might help me understand what is really going on. At least I'm learning a beautiful piece of mathematics, something that a research scientist rarely has time to do (that might actually be a good topic for a detailed rant one of these days).

I also did write a couple more pages for the paper with WS, which hopefully is really going to be ready any day now.

WS and I are also discussing a much more serious issue, namely if we want to stay where we are or try to move to a different country. We both agree that in the country we are now we are in an optimal situation, but the question is whether somewhere else we could live better. Of course I am scared as hell at the thought of moving a whole family, have the kids get used to a new town/school/language etc, learning to fight with a different burocracy, and in general moving to a country with a lower precentage of female mathematicians (basically any move will have that effect).

On the other hand, as professors it is hard to move once you are 50+, and WS, despite looking like a teenager and for some things reasoning like an 8-year old, is not that terribly far away from the half-century mark. So if we want to go it better be soon, and whatever move we make is very likely going to be the last one. It is kind of comforting that I am not the only Female Science Professor entertaining similar thoughts of moving as a mid-career academic couple.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Working together

Many mathematicians prefer not to work alone. It is basically for the same reason why people who go mountain climbing don't go alone; having somebody nearby, as you explore an unknown and difficult territory, can help you avoid pitfalls and desaster, or find a brilliant shortcut. Plus, in the occasional breaks from intense thinking that must occur to preserve mental sanity, you have someone around to chat with.

I usually prefer to choose my coworkers among people I am close to anyway. In fact, I wrote my first joint paper with WS, who at that time was just a Wonderful Boyfriend. The next joint paper was written with FCo, my (so far only) female coauthor, a close friend who had been a student with me, on a topic which was very close to both our theses. I am very proud of that work, because it is the first of my papers where I didn't just prove the theorems but significantly contributed to the statements. All my papers so far had been suggestions of my advisor, except for the joint work with WS which was based on an idea of WS.

You may guess the next logical step: I wrote a paper with Ununderstandable Coauthor UnCo, a close friend of WS who had been a student with him. With time, I think that UnCo and I have also become friends. I am not sure because I still find him quite ununderstable, though.

A the same time, I started a collaboration with another friend who was had been a student with me: I'll refer to him as ImCo, for impressive coauthor, since when he applied for a job at the university where I was working, a colleague told me how he had been so impressed by this particular candidate. Except he used a word in my language which is much stronger than impressive, and which made everybody laugh. For the record, ImCo did turn down our offer, and has since only worked in Impressive Universities.

Excluding PD's and S's, my youngest coauthor is NeCo, my nervous coauthor. He's an extremely smart person who tends to worry overmuch about any mistake he might possibly make. When he's not talking about himself, which tends to be a very gloomy topic, he's a very pleasant person to spend time with; he also drinks precisely the correct amount so that, when having dinner together, we can order haf a liter of wine. NeCo works in a different country, but not too far away, so hopefully we'll see a lot of each other in the future.

I'll keep updating this page, so as to have all the coauthors together.

Working on a holiday

Today is a holiday in the country I usually live in, but not where I am now. I got up late. I'm ashamed how late it was... but it's all the fault of being at the Opera yesterday evening - and that is of course Good For My Culture, right? - and not at all to do with the time spent in a Tapas bar afterwards.

I spent half an hour talking to S#7, cleverly avoided S#4, and devoted the whole afternoon to working with my coauthor who's here, whom I'll refer to as my Ununderstandable Coauthor (UCo). UCo is also the one who thought of going to the Tapas bar to begin with, so it's all his fault (it's always somebody else's fault). UCo and I are working on a paper which needs methods from a field we are not at all familiar with. So we get all the hardship of learning from scratch something new, without the help of an advisor or of anybody else, and while having "grownup" pressure to publish. Plus, of course, not only white hair abound on both of our heads, but also the inside of said heads isn't as smart as when we were students in the last century.
So it's all pretty hard, and there's always a very nontrivial risk that whatever we end up producing, if nonempty, will be declared unreadable by people who work in our field and trivial by people in the new field.

Tomorrow morning I will have to get up early to do my laundry, and then I have scheduled a Skype chat with PD#1 and S#7 to discuss our joint work. The next few days are going to be really intense.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Slowmotion progress

I didn't work too hard sunday and yesterday. I did, however, finish my part of the paper with WS, and started seriously working on the paper with PD#1 and S#6. It turns out that PD#1 and S#6 are so worried about getting the mathematics right that the paper is coming out very unattractive, which is bad because people will not read it. The fact that they both see very well, and so chose a ten-point style with very narrow margins, also doesn't help in making the paper reader-friendly. So now I'm in the middle of a major meditation on how to write this all up nicely.

Today I also spent two hours and a half explaining a postdoc and a doctoral student here a more geometric version of a classical construction. Classical means more than 30 years old, but it still is not written in any textbook, and so young people find it hard to read. It turns out that I never read the old paper, and reconstructed the proof myself - ending up with a much simpler approach, which is no doubt familar to all the experts, but is not written down anywhere. So now hopefully these two young people (who are obviously a couple) will write it all up nicely.

I am happy for them and pleased to be of help, but I'm wondering what kind of field I'm in where it takes thirty years until key ideas get finally a reasonable expository form.

In related news, I spent one hour on the phone with WS and one with S#6 discussing the respective papers. Even in these very modern times, not everything can be done via email. Hopefully soon we will all have a webcam, and then we can collaborate wherever we are.

Now I have to hurry up and have a snack and a short walk, as I'm going to the opera tonight. Of course I have nothing really elegant to put on, but after all this is northern europe so I don't have to. Hopefully.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Under the blanket of ugliness

Yesterday evening, as I went to buy groceries for dinner, I had a sudden intuition: it could happen that one of my students has a crush on me! After one minute of further deliberation, I decided that it's most likely not the case, and if it were, my best strategy is to ignore it and just make sure our relationship doesn't become too friendly.
But I kept wondering why it took me so many years of advising to realize that some such thing might at all be possible. The answer, of course, is that I am (by current standards) ugly, and have been so ever since I hit puberty. So I am used to the fact that usually people, and especially men, see me in a unsexual way.
And this has been good for me in many ways. I think I have been bothered much less than better-looking women, and in fact almost not at all.
I got used to the fact that whomever I was attracted to was most likely not attracted to me, and learned to live with it without suffering - surely a very useful lesson, especially if learned early in life.
Any human being who was ever attracted to me (a very small set anyway) was usually at least partially enthralled by my intellectual abilities, something which is by nature a bit more longlasting then physical beauty.
And very importantly for me as a scientist, male colleagues were not so tempted to discuss my looks instead of my theorems. I remember overhearing a comment "I don't know what she talked about, I was looking lower than the blackboard" after a talk by a good-looking woman wearing some ever so slightly tight-fitting trousers. This is unlikely to happen to me - and since then I always make sure to show up at conferences wearing non-revealing clothing to be on the safe side.
Ugliness has been a shelter for me, a bit like Harry Potter's invisibility blanket. As a teenager, I was very unhappy with it, but now I regard it as a blessing. I think for a really beautiful woman it is harder to be taken seriously as a mathematician.
I also have started to really like my looks. When I have time, I buy clothes with pleasure, and I appreciate the fact that I want first and foremost to look good to myself. It is also easier to make a few adjustments to accommodate the few preferences of WS: for instance, not cutting my hair really short, and wearing warm instead of cold and/or dark colours. It is much less effort than trying to keep up with a forever changing fashion and our society's unreasonable demands on women (uncomfortable clothing and shoes and unpleasant body hair removal spring first to mind, but do not exhaust the list).
Now I just have to find the time to get a haircut and buy clothes. Maybe next week.

Working with my husband

Today, and the whole week, I found it very hard to seriously concentrate. At least I did manage for a couple of hours, and now the article with WS seems to be approaching completion. It is not that great, but it's ok. I did check one of his most badly written proofs, which had been bouncing between right and wrong in the past, and it is right. Just appallingly badly written. How he finds it natural to write something which mixes rigour with gut feeling and ends up being a proof is beyond me.

Plus, I have to accept the way he wants to write part of the paper. I discussed it yesterday over dinner with a friend, and he said that he understood my objections and asked why I didn't try to discuss with WS a change of notation. My answer was that 1) he's actually the expert in this area, so maybe the notation, although crazy, is indeed standard and 2) many women love their husbands so much that they accept infidelity, drunkenness, and marital violence. If all I have to face is the fact that a few brackets become subscripts, it really seems a minor sacrifice.

Daycare im Spiegel

Today two articles with essentially the same content: Danemark' princess gets criticized for sending her 17-month old child to daycare, and Stoiber (hasn't the loser retired already?) suggests that money should be spent on keeping mothers at home and not on daycare.

Apparently there's too many people, even in those lucky countries on the other side of the Alps with respect to the Vatican, who think that all children under three should be at home. Despite the fact that no studies show that this is better for the child (of course what is better for the mother is not taken into consideration at all).

And here in the deep north, where there are hopefully no such problems, it is really, really cold.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Partial Birth Abortion: an outing

As many already know, the US supreme Court has upheld a federal ban of partial birth abortion.

The first time I read a description of this procedure, I was myself disgusted, and thought it should be forbidden. The article said that it was a procedure to call abortion and make legal the killing of a perfectly viable, term fetus, by extracting the body and then sucking out the brain before collapsing and extracting the skull. It does sound really bad. I couldn't imagine why any woman would want that.

I have since learned that it is a medical procedure performed when an abortion is necessary at an advanced pregnancy stage, usually because of a mother's health problem or a very sick, and sometimes already dead, fetus. The idea is that an abortion has already been ok'ed anyway, and that this particular procedure is preferred over a "natural" vaginal delivery or a cesarean because it presents less risks' for the mothers' health, particularly her ability to bear other children in the future. A typical indication are severe hydrocefalus cases, where any from of abortion that doesn't involve collapsing the skull is much more dangerous for the mothers' body.

I think that when more than one medical procedure is possible to treat a disease, mentally healthy human beings should be given an informed choice on what should be done to their body. I think money considerations should not play a role, as much as humanly possible.

I am appalled to think that in this case five men, none of whom has ever risked being pregnant with a very sick or dead fetus, much less had a direct experience of it, have decided that women who face such difficult situations will have one less choice. How many precisely will be impacted is too early to say.

I will never be in such a situation: my childbearing days are over, and I'm not in the US anyway. But my daughter? Who will take care of my daughter, and of my granddaughters, and of the generations to come? I'm scared, scared of going back to the Middle Ages. What if the Winter of Reason comes back, and engulfs the world?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Postdoc: luck and and the rest

This post is submitted to the fourth Postdoc Carnival, at least if I can get the Technorati tag to work.

Due to some quirks of my country's hiring system, I never was a postdoc myself. There never was a postdoctoral fellow around when I was a student, or an assistant professor. So it was with some trepidation that, some years ago, I selected "my" first postdoc. I had no clue what I was supposed to do to help him, and even less as to whether he could help me. I just knew I had volunteered to help him making the big step from student to research scientist, and was quite scared.

PD#1 started to help me by asking clever questions during my lectures, and discussing with me afterwards what I might do to improve them. He had many informal conversations with students, and gave me useful feedback (he even went initiated conversations when he felt a student was in trouble but too shy to ask for help). He helped organising various seminars and study groups, and more mundane events as well: wine and cheese party, dinner out together.

As he became technically more proficient in my expertise area, which was due to his hard work but also to my help, he started having projects of his own, collaborating with other postdocs which he got in touch with via email or met at conferences: I helped him find money for his travels, and for hospitality at our institute for his collaborators.

Finally, we are now working on a joint research project, which I really like a lot.

Looking back, I feel first of all lucky. I made a difficult choice two years ago, faced with research programs that were hard to understand, and cv's that were impossible to compare. I don't know, and will never know, whether I made the best choice. But my choice was at least good.

I have now learned that a well-turned postdoctoral grant is a win-win-win game, with the profit being equally shared by the grad students, the PI and the postdoctoral fellow. I think this depends more on the goodwill of the people involved than on the actual skill with which the selection was made (on either side). I went through my scientific career choosing people to work with on the basis that they were, or at least seemed to be, nice people. Humans I trusted. It has worked very well, so far.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Goodnight call

I just had a brief phone call with WS. He went to the beach with the children and a family of friends, and none of them got a sunburn. He was totally exhausted, however, as it had been a lot of work to bathe, feed, and put to bed the kids, and then reorder at least some of the mess. So he was listening less than enthousiastically at my explanations about the changes I made in the draft of our paper and my candidates for the position of Postdoc #3.

Here in the deep north it was a fantastically sunny day. I just have to get my sleeping schedule back to normal: last night I didn't fall asleep until 3am, and this morning I consequently slept until 11. Tomorrow morning I go on a shopping spree, and than I will start to kick mathematical ass.

I might have three papers on the arxiv in the next month. I can't believe it.

I knew it all the time

Who are the happiest with their studies? If you don't read german, the title says "Happyness, depending on the type of university degree".
I am today a particularly good example: the weather is unbelievably beautiful, I'm putting the finishing touches to a paper which will be ready soon, and I have already made plans for going to the Systembolaget tomorrow.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Back in Paradise

The sun woke me up this morning. The one-room flat is in the middle of a wood, a few steps away from the big villa where the Institute is. I was here ten years ago, and it seems like yesterday. It's a country where I certainly would like to live, but mathematically one ends up being somewhat isolated, no only for geographical reasons but also because of a heavy teaching load.
The little I know of the language I've kept, but I still find it very hard to understand when spoken. Luckily everyone speaks english here.
Now I just have to hope my suitcase can join me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On the go

I came back from Easter vacation yesterday, and I am leaving again for work reasons today. I like travelling, but I sometimes think there is a bit too much of it in my life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Deep sadness

Sometimes things are just too sad.
The trial has started for a gynecologist that killed a woman by unprofessionality and neglect. He forced her baby out her womb and wounded her, and he didn't listen to her complaints that she was feeling really sick and losing a lot of blood. When the next doctor arrived, they had an emergency operation, but it was too late.
My midwife told me a few things about it. The doctor was the woman's private doctor. She extra paid for him to be there at delivery: this also means he was very tired, since his turn had just finished. He is well known to always want the birth to go faster than natural, and uses vacuum extraction much more than the other doctors. Plus, the next day there was a big sailing race, and the doctor was participating, so he was in a special hurry to go home and get some rest.
I was also in the hospital those days, in the maternity ward. Nobody told us anything, and it wasn't on the newspaper (my midwife told me after I went home). But I did see the beautiful baby, who never had his mother but a number of very sad looking people around: the father, the grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Most of all, I remember the elder brother, aged maybe 8, trying to hold the baby and feed it formula with a bottle. In my language formula is called artificial milk. At some point the elder brother asked: "Why do we give him artificial milk? Shouldn't he be getting natural milk instead?". Nobody answered that question. There was just a big silence. And then the child understood. He just said "Oh.". Very softly.
I was there, busy with my newborns, excited and happy. But that pause, and the little soft "Oh." really broke my heart, even if I didn't know precisely what had happened. I can't remember it even now without crying.

Marital jealousy

Yesterday I was late in the office. Mostly I was delaying going home, since I was really sick with a bad cold; I was sitting back in my comfortable armchair with my eyes closed, appreciating the silence.
When I went home, finally, WS was really angry. After some gentle coaxing, he finally admitted that he was jealous because I had spent so many hours working on my paper with PD#1 and S#6, and not on our joint paper. So I sat there with him and we discussed it for an hour, after which he admitted that he couldn't even make a reasonable statement of his proposed generalization of our main theorem.
This morning I spent another hour discussing with WS and I explained to him my proof of the one missing statement in the current project. So now that paper is mathematically finished, and we might manage to write it up in the easter vacation. I might have two papers on the arXiv before the end of april! I can't believe it!

Monday, April 2, 2007

I hate mondays

Saturday evening C#1's best friend came home with her, and spent the night. Yesterday was hectic, with WS being several hours in his bed, claiming sickness, amd the kids making a horrible mess everywhere. I didn't do any mathematics, and I didn't do any household duties either.
This morning there was a talk by PD#2, and then I spent several hours discussing our joint paper with PD#1 and S#6. It seems that now it's completely settled, and some of the details may very well be left out and become a tiny new article.
I then spent 90 minutes discussing with S#9 his thesis project. It's coming out really well, and he should have a really good paper in a few months. He's only despondent because he's convinced I'm helping him too much. He should see what the others are doing... although, to be fair, he got a really nice problem, and he might really be faster with it. If he wasn't so outrageously young, and the problem so revoltingly technical, that is.
I'm really happy with him.
Now I just have to make sure that, at some point, I can number all the students correctly :-).