Shabbat Shalom, Social Media

In many ways, I’ve never felt more fired up about issues of diversity and inclusion than I do now. I believe in the power of active resistance. But, in other ways I’m completely overwhelmed and burnt out by the new administration. And we’re only a couple of days in.

I’m shocked that Sean Spicer stood in front of our country and boldly lied about a trivial issue. Who cares how many people were at the inauguration? But, this is a symptom of something bigger. My grandmother always told me that someone who will lie to you about something small can’t be trusted to tell you the truth about something important. I’m more shocked and appalled that the media outlets didn’t immediately and forcefully denounce what he had done. We trust the media to not just report facts, but to tell us the truth. A headline that says “Spicer reports inaugural crowds were record-breaking” is factually correct, but also misleading and not truthful. “Sean Spicer lies to reporters” would have been factual and truthful. It scares me that not only is the White House not to be trusted, but the media may also not be trustworthy. We may all need to renew our subscriptions to Teen Vogue.

Trump has opted to retain his own security force, in addition (as as a replacement for?) his secret service detail. My dear husband Strange reminds me that the SS in Nazi Germany began as a private security detail that provided security at party meetings.Is that where we’re going?

My continuous focus on this isn’t good for my mental health and I am trying to take lessons from my mixed faith household in how to deal with this. Strange is a member of the tribe and I was raised Catholic. Still, I think my own spiritual beliefs have begun to align with his Spinoza-ist views of a higher power.We try to celebrate the positive aspects of both of our faiths in our home. One of my favorite practices has become the observance of Shabbat. I like being together on Friday nights. Breaking bread, lighting candles, and giving thanks for the gift of wine is spiritually nourishing for me. I’ve gotten into learning more about Shabbat, where the greeting “Shabbat Shalom” translates to “peaceful sabbath.”

It’s made me more motivated to make it a priority to guard peace for a defined part of the week. Those that are more observant of Shabbat eschew work and potentially even electronic devices. This week I decided to try to incorporate that into my life, in an effort to gain some peace from the hurricane we’re all in. Friday to Saturday will become an electronic-free time, and a break from news and social media, where we focus on self and family. I’m looking forward to this time as a period of personal growth.  Strange and I enjoyed an electronic/social media free day this past weekend and it was wonderful. We forbade the use of the words “Trump” and “Obamacare”. Instead we spent time together, went to Costco, went running, made a lovely dinner and sat in the sauna.  It was nice to refill my energy stores.

And then when we’re recharged, we can return to the fight.

Shabbat Shalom, social media.

 

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Clip Wallets, Two Step Authentication, and Squirrels

I understand that two step authentication is supposed to be more secure. The idea is (allegedly) that by requiring a password *and* a phone verification or push notification to log onto a website. My banks have it and several of the websites at my academic institutions have it. I get the point, but it makes me feel like…

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My phone is dead at least 12 hours of any 24 hour period and I am clearly not grown up enough to manage to keep it charged. Without my phone, I can’t authorize the second step of two step authentication. I feel like I want a standing ovation for at least being able to keep my computer charged. I can’t be expected to manage the phone too. But, without the two step authentication, I can’t access stuff. Trouble is, this isn’t motivating me to improve my interactions with technology. It motivates me to realize I don’t need so many complications in my life.

I suspect my complete inability to handle two step authentication is emblematic of a recent trend in my life – a return to the analog. I’ve been writing about how one of the recent Strange family missions has been to get complete control of our finances. We went from more than $50K in debt between us to being on Steps 4, 5 &6 of Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps, which I wrote about here. We are completely consumer debt free (this doesn’t include a mortgage, but still makes me weepy to think about), we have 3-6 months of expenses set aside for emergencies, we’re funding retirement, and we are building college funds for our 5 children. We got there in two ways – we lived on absolutely nothing for a while and we live on a written budget that we spit shake on every month. Our budget is a written contract between us.

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My clips, tucked into the wallet. At this point in the month, the clips are filled with mostly ones.

But, one of the most important changes I made is that I switched to cash. It’s easier to keep track of spending when your money is in your hands. It’s harder to overspend at Target when you have a finite amount of cash in your wallet. Carrying around little cash allowances has saved me hundreds of dollars a month because I see my expenses every time I open my wallet. I started with Dave’s envelope system – I carried letter sized envelopes around in my purse with each one marked. I had envelopes for food, gas, kids’ expenses, and personal expenses.  The envelopes worked great, but they got tattered in my purse. They became quite the conversation piece.

This Christmas Strange bought me the new wallet that Dave’s daughter Rachel designed and I LOVE it! My love of this wallet is unhealthy. Rather than having envelopes now, I have different colored binder clips. I wrote little words on my colored clips to help keep them straight.  The wallet itself is gorgeous. It’s leather, comes in adorable colors and has the right number of pockets. My clips are a conversation piece at the market like my envelopes were, but now they’re a higher end conversation piece. There’s a debit card and a Costco card in the wallet, but there’s no credit card. Just cash.

I’m also trying to get my students to appreciate a return to the analog. There is a time and place for technology, but I am struck by the data that show that students learn more when they put pen to paper.  I’m trying to encourage students to read and write more to support their learning – not simply rely on Powerpoint. I’m not convinced that technology helps students in physiology. As we develop the technology to push a button and make a measurement, students lose the basic principles of how the measurement is made. Theseget-offa-my-lawn are my Get Off My Lawn moments.

The first assignment I gave them, to encourage them to look at course materials, was to ask them to read the syllabus. It sounds like a simple thing, but getting students to read the syllabus is also something I’ve struggled with. I can’t remember where I heard this idea – it might have been Twitter – but I told them I’d give them a point if they read the syllabus. I also told them they’d know how to demonstrate this to me, by reading the syllabus. I embedded the following short phrase in one of the statements of university policy:

Please email me a picture of a squirrel when you read this.

I now have an inbox full of squirrels. They were creative in their squirrel picture and I have been chuckling at their squirrels over the last 24 hours. These are the kinds of assignments I like. They amuse me and they hold the students accountable.

Part of our financial freedom has been eschewing some of the technological tools that support the bank and serve to separate us from our money little bits of a time. Now, academically, I want to continue to move our students back to the basic fundamentals of physiology. Writing equations, applying equations, building things. I’m starting with just reading the syllabus.

An Open Letter to Iowa’s Lawmakers: The Proposal to End Tenure is an Immediate Threat to the Health of Iowans

professor.pngThe perception of the college professor is mixed. People know great teachers who teach great stuff. But, then there are the “other” professors. Slovenly folk with elbow patches, teaching our nation’s youth completely useless skills. Or, not teaching at all because they’ve gotten tenure and can spend their time pondering another scholar’s recent writings on another scholar’s writings on another’s interpretation of someone long-dead. All of this in the midst of an enormous student debt crisis and underemployment of our nation’s youth. If you think that’s who college professors are, I can see how you might be upset. I find the student debt upsetting also. I only recently paid off my own student loans. It’s a problem we need to fix.

In the middle of last year, the State of Wisconsin passed legislation to reduce tenure protections in the public university system. This month Iowa and Missouri followed. I love Iowa, and am proud to be an Iowan, and this bill makes me terrified as a citizen. Allow me to explain…

Nestled among the University of Iowa’s faculty are physicians. These physicians treat patients, but they also are expected to devote their time to scholarly activities. They do biomedical research, they invent new treatments, and they investigate how to make healthcare better. These physicians are so incredibly important. Tenure gives them the protection to take on the highest risks projects – the ones that might not work but, if they did, would have an enormous impact on people’s lives. They often trade a higher salary to be part of the research enterprise. These doctors keep our medical school at the cutting edge. They work in our state’s only nationally recognized children’s teaching hospital. They keep our state’s healthcare innovative. They are the leaders in healthcare. And, without them, there is no medical school.

Why is this a problem for Iowa? Missouri and Wisconsin have private medical schools. Our public medical school is the only MD-degree granting institution in the state and tenure is an important tool in recruiting talented physician teachers and scholars. Without the University of Iowa, Iowans will have to go to other states for state-of-the-art healthcare. Beyond recruiting talented physicians here, it will also  become more difficult to keep quality physicians if the medical school is hurt. Physicians who train in Iowa often stay in Iowa. They become community doctors. Students who leave Iowa to attend medical school are less likely to come back.

Finally, tenure track faculty teach the students that feed the physician pipeline. Pre-med students are all trained by tenure track faculty at the undergraduate level. Our state’s best undergraduate programs are in the public universities. If we lose talent because faculty are recruited away and students don’t feel they are being well-prepared for professional school, students may choose private or out-of-state universities. This doesn’t help the student debt problem. An education at our state’s public universities is still a bargain.

I understand the anger and frustration over student debt, but tenure is not the problem. We need to empower our students earlier to think about how they will pay for college and what they hope to gain. We need to get them, and their parents, thinking about how they will pay for college earlier. Right now, it sneaks up on them and many see student loans as their only option. I would propose that, instead of gutting an important state asset, we invest in teaching our K-12 students the foundations of personal finance. Put college on their radar early and encourage them that they need to consider cost-benefit and prepare sooner. We need to change our culture to believe that it’s not reasonable to fund an education entirely with student loans.

As a citizen, I am grateful for the fantastic healthcare I receive in our state and I hope that my fellow Iowans give careful thought to the potential implications of eliminating tenure here.

 

Insomnia, Marriage, Writing, Returns on Investment, and Gratitude

It is the middle of the night and I am awake. I’m frequently awake in the middle of the night, and have had middle of the night insomnia for years. My insomnia is the worst when there is something weighing on my mind and lately there is a lot weighing on my mind. Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of nights awake. I really love this country, but recent political events remind me of the South American dictatorships my grandmother used to tell me about.

[From here, about  1960s Ecuador] Even Velasco’s own vice president, a Guayaquileño Liberal named Jorge Zavala Baquerizo, turned into a strident and vocal critic. Cabinet ministers came and went with astonishing frequency. This political impasse soon combined with the fiscal and balance-of- payments crises, which by now had become customary under the spendthrift habits and administrative mismanagement associated with each of Velasco’s terms in office, to spawn a major political crisis. The turning point came on June 22, 1970, when Velasco, in an action known as an autogolpe (self-seizure of power), dismissed Congress and the Supreme Court and assumed dictatorial powers.

Velasco subsequently decreed a number of necessary, though extremely unpopular, economic measures. After devaluing the sucre for the first time since 1961, he placed tight controls on foreign exchange transactions and then decreed a number of new tax measures, the most controversial of which raised import tariffs considerably. Velasco attempted to compensate for his lost prestige by baiting the United States, seizing and fining United States fishing boats found within 200 nautical miles (370 km) of the Ecuadorian coast. The intensification of the “tuna war” inflamed tempers in both countries; Ecuador dismissed United States military advisers, and the United States withdrew almost all economic and military aid to Ecuador. Such nationalistic adventures were of only momentary value to Velasco, however. In 1971, amid mounting civic unrest that verified the extent of the opposition, he was forced to cancel a scheduled national plebiscite in which he hoped to replace the 1967 constitution, with the charter written under his own auspices in 1946 the Constitution, Velasco argued, made the president too weak to be effective.

The president’s autogolpe and his continuance in power were possible because of support from the armed forces.

These self-interested dictators come into power on the wave of populist movements, and then destroy the people that lifted them up.  It makes me feel afraid for our country because so many around me truly believe that these sorts of things can’t happen here. So many more truly believe our new orange overlord is going to make their lives better. Our new leader is a bully and a tyrant. He cares little for policy and law and I am literally losing sleep over the future of the country that I love.

But my fear of the future is counterbalanced by a sense of security in what’s to come. Last week Strange and I gathered our 5 children and ran off to Belize to get married.  We had a lovely little ceremony on the beach and then some of the kids (and Strange and me, let’s not kid ourselves) jumped in the nearby pool in their wedding clothes to get drinks from the pool bar. It’s strange to be Mrs. Strange, and yet not at all strange at the same time. We’ve both been married before, so co-habitation is nothing new. We’ve also been slowly merging our lives over the last six months. Coming back, I don’t feel like a newlywed, but I do feel happy. Basking in the glow of a new marriage is different when you are chasing children and trying to keep up with a busy career.

When I woke up at about 2 am, I took down the decorations from the Christmas tree (a chore which had been nagging at me) and then sat down with my computer to work on a grant. I opened a previous application to snag an aim I had written last year and was really struck by it. Not because of how good it was, but because of how different the voice in the writing was. It was really amazing to me how much and how quickly my own writing has evolved.

Last night I got an email from one of my clinical collaborators about a manuscript we have in the works. I really adore this guy. He’s smart, funny, kind, works like a machine and collaborating with him is  one of the highlights of my career. As an aside, I am very lucky to have some amazing collaborators. My collaborator lamented in his email about how much he hates writing, and he doesn’t understand how scientists do it regularly. I wrote back that I love it, and I think I really meant it. When I left graduate school, I hadn’t publishing and I was painfully aware of my “poor productivity.” I received a postdoc fellowship my first year, but was reminded by the reviewers that my productivity was poor. I wrote a paper from my graduate work in the first few months of my postdoc and it was an unbearably painful process. I had no idea what I was doing. I have no doubt that I abused some overly kind reviewers who took pity upon me and told me how horrible my writing was, but still let me revise my submission. I started my science blog at about this time, still feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the process. I was terrified of writing.

The real message came when I wrote my K99 application.  I got the reviews back and had 1’s and 2’s in most of the major categories – except the investigator. In that category, I got 9’s.   I met with one of my mentors at my postdoc institution about the grant and he told me that the reviewers were sending me a very clear message – my ideas were good, but I wasn’t productive in the ways that mattered. I had no scientific currency and I needed to write some damned papers. I told him how much I dreaded it, and we talked about ways to improve my writing. He asked me a question that, at the time, I didn’t understand. He asked me who my favorite writers were. I rattled off a list of some big name scientists in our field and he responded, “No, not scientists. Who are the people whose writing you admire?” He told me to look at what they do and write like them.  He was telling me that I needed to read more, for both content and style, and that I needed to write more. It changed everything for me. Another mentor told me to write like a blog. That helped too many made me wonder why the blog was so easy, but manuscripts gave me night sweats.

Everything I read – fiction, non-fiction, blogs, journalism, etc – became a lesson in style for me. The message the universe was sending me was, stop developing anxiety about the minutiae of the process and just tell a story. I started asking everyone I knew about their writing process. I had a couple of mentors who let me watch how watch how they wrote their papers, and I wrote a now defunct blog post about how to craft a scientific paper. Perhaps some day, I’ll re-write and re-post it. I  harassed everyone I knew for help. The techniques I learned were solid. I also got really angry about being called “not productive” and made a goal to stamp out that perception. I locked myself in my office and wrote everything I could get my hands on.  If you look at my publication record (said as non-douchily as one can say that), it’s obvious exactly when this all went down because, in the following 12 months, I published 12 papers and have kept up a decent pace since. Immersing myself so completely in writing is one of the most valuable things I have done for my career. It’s the area I have seen the most improvement, in relation to the amount of work I have put in.  I received the reviews for a grant that was funded yesterday and both reviewers remarked that I was a “highly productive” investigator. My challenge as a mentor now is, how to convince my students that writing is their currency and that it pays dividends. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, but not how painfully they came.

The alarm in our bedroom just went off. Strange didn’t even flinch and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m realizing that I need to find some sort of strategy to survive the next four years. There has to be a way to counter-balance the sadness I feel for what’s going on around me. My next investment may need to be in gratitude. For now, I am going to try to be grateful for these sleepless nights that give me time to meditate and write in peace. And, I am going to be grateful for all the people that taught me to write, whether they know they helped me or not.