Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Applications of light: BRAINS

Grad school forces you to live life in a tiny bubble. You spend all your time constantly swamped with making progress on your research project and trying to publish something (anything) meaningful.  It can be difficult to keep up with much else: eating, sleeping, a social life... not to mention the important things like reading all the notable historical papers in your field and keeping up to date with current publications of your colleagues and competitors. All this makes it downright impossible to stay on top of advances in scientific fields outside your own. Who has the time?

Sometimes being a postdoc doesn't feel all that different. I wrapped-up my PhD earlier this year and despite a full-plate of postdoc responsibilities and a never-ending quest to publish, I'm consciously putting more effort into being engaged in the scientific community at large, including reading more general science publications. Though as a specialist in visible light-emitting devices, the articles that particularly catch my eye are any that describe applications of light.  (Pun intended, haha, sorry.)

I was so excited to learn a new word yesterday: Optogenetics.

photo by John Carnett for Popular Science

Optogenetics, a not-that-new term coined by Karl Deisseroth at Stanford, is a way of using light to precisely stimulate parts of the body.  It's done by embedding certain light-sensitive proteins into tissues or cells, which can activate the cells by exposing it to the correct wavelength of light.

You guys!  They can control a rat's brain with frikkin lasers! This made me spit out my drink and go: "WHAT. THAT'S AWESOME. SCIENCE IS SO COOL."

Watch this great 4 minute video from Nature that describes optogentics in more detail.

So far, optogenetic methods have already been used to make several advances in neurological research. Nature considered it so revolutionary, it was named Method of the Year in 2010.

Recently, Stanford scientists were able to use optogenetics to demonstrate that the hypocretin or orexin, a neuro-transmitter that regulates appetite, arousal, and wakefulness, has a big impact on the sleep to wake transition through the stimulation of neurons in the locus coeruleus, part of the brain that stimulates noradrenaline and is critical for arousal and wakefulness.  Neat!  Read the SciCurious article "Sleeping Beauty: magic or hypocretin?" over at Scientific American for more details. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist

Ah, conferences. They can be fantastic opportunities to get out of the lab, showcase your research, as well as meet and interact with your peers, collaborators and possibly arch nemeses. Conferences can also trigger some anxiety and social awkwardness. Still, you want to leave a good impression. You want to look your best AND you want to look like you give a shit.

If you spend any time researching proper attire for these conferences, you'll run into all kinds of unhelpful advice like "Dress for success" or "Dress for the job you want." What does that even mean? What am I supposed to wear?

As a grad student and postdoc I was lucky enough to attend a LOT of conferences. I found the specific dress codes for scientific conferences range depending on size, where and when the conference is held, the field, and even age and academic level.

For men, it's easy.  In my field of academic science & engineering, international conferences  in Europe and Asia are generally more conservative and men dress in business attire, so a full suit is appropriate, especially when presenting a talk. Smaller U.S. conferences are typically business-causal, which for a man can range from dress slacks with dress shirt and dress shoes or even dark denim and a casual button-up shirt. If they work for a government lab, their uniform is khakis and a polo shirt. (I swear those guys all look the same! It's so weird!)

from The Loft

For women, clothing requirements are ambiguous and options seemingly infinite.  And, as much as we hate it, women can still be judged harshly for their looks in a male-dominated scientific community. Even by other women! At the time of putting this post together, attendees of the recent Society for Neuroscience conference caused a minor stir online after accusing fellow female scientists of looking like slutty secretaries or being too unattractive.

I doubt there are many female scientists who go to a conference and intentionally dress sexy for male attention, or intentionally dress on the frumpy side because they're ashamed of their femininity. Maybe they just don't know how their outfit comes across to others. Maybe they said to themselves, "This is what I have, so it is good enough." Or "I'm a scientist. Who cares what I'm wearing?" Truth is, people do care (at least a little bit). And you should too (at least a little bit).

It's not vain to want to look feminine and fashionable. It's more about feeling confident and putting your best foot forward. The bottom line is really, wear what you feel confident and comfortable in.

blouse from The Loft

Yet, as a lady scientist, it can be difficult to know specifically what's appropriate, where to shop, or how to put together versatile outfits. Scientifically-driven women like ourselves may not be up-to-date with the latest trends at all, or even care to be. If you're spending all your time wearing jeans and sneakers in the lab, you may not necessarily have a good stock of dressy outfits to bring to a week-long conference. And if all your labmates and coworkers are guys, they're probably not the ones to go to for fashion advice.

Outfit from The Gap

There's definitely a lot of gray area on what looks good and works and what's inappropriate and doesn't work. Now that I'm in my thirties and a postdoc, I like to use every upcoming conference as an excuse to upgrade my tomboyish college wardrobe. A professional conference is the perfect venue to look like a sophisticated, classy, feminine version of myself. I figure I already stand-out by being female in the first place, why hide it trying to dress like one-of-the-guys?

I learned through observations and some trial-and-error experimentation to find out what works for my body and comfort level. Like a scientist.

Blouse and pencil skirt from J. Crew

I will freely admit: I hate shopping, especially clothes shopping.  But shopping with a purpose and knowing what I'm looking for makes it much easier.

So, to help other lady scientists who are looking for advice on what to wear, I polled a few of my gorgeous yet brilliant lady scientist friends for some tips on choosing appropriate, fashionable outfits for science conferences, which I'm compiling here. What follows is a comprehensive boat-load of unsolicited fashion advice.

My ground rules for dressing like a fashionable lady scientist:
  • Your clothes should be comfortable, look good, and help you feel confident. That is the most important.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of caution and go the more conservative and dressed up route. This is true in life in general, ha.
  • No exposed cleavage.  Seriously.  Not even a little.  Button an extra button of your top and if you have big boobs larger breasts, invest in some heavy-duty bras and tops that fit.  
    • [ Note: I hate to sound like I'm slut-shaming here, which is probably why this has been the most controversial advice from comments over the years. My reason for this rule is this: any time I've worn anything remotely low-cut or show any amount of skin, I notice a few men will stare at my body. It makes me VERY uncomfortable and I really hate it. So I follow this rule in any professional setting. That said, this is all about your personal comfort level. If you feel confident, obviously, go for it.] 
  • Quality over quantity.  Spend more money on high-quality clothes that you can wear over and over.  In many cases you definitely get what you pay for.  
  • Know what fits you! It's so important! Your size can change! I feel like my life changed when I went a size larger than I always wore, even though my weight was the same. 
  • Jewelry and accessories can go a long way. That said, sometimes you end up wearing a lanyard badge around your neck the whole time anyway so extra necklace seems redundant. 
  • Sales clerks are really good at helping with sizing and putting outfits together. If you have no idea what you're doing, go to a nice department store and ask for help with the dressing room attendant.  Some stores (i.e. Nordstrom) even offer free fashion consulting.
  • Solid, neutral colors will always be in style.  These include: black, gray, brown, tan, beige, white, off-white, navy blue, light blue, dark green, dark red. 
  • If you're not sure what colors look good on you, check out this handy guide from Gala Darling.
Chunky sweater and skirt from J. Crew
  • A good length for skirts and dresses are just above the knee or just below.
  • "Trendy" and "stylish" are different things. Shoot for stylish, which to me means more classic, things that won't go out of style in a few years.
  • "Dressy" and "sexy" are two different things. I'm thinking about when I was an undergrad and the only non-jeans I had were the my fitted "going out" pants that were not necessarily appropriate for a work event.   
  • A few tricks to tone down a questionably too-sexy outfit: 
    • Opaque (dark) tights instead of bare legs.
    • Flats or oxfords instead of heels.
    • Cardigan or blazer over a fitted top or exposed shoulders. 
    • Camisole to wear under transparent shirts or to cover potential cleavage. 
    • Long shirts/sweaters to layer over jeggings/fitted slacks
This belted sheath dress from Nordstrom looks classy as fuck, but you could tone it down with cardigan and flats.
  • Dress appropriately for your age and level of experience.  A more experienced assistant professor who's chairing a session may get away with a sleeveless sheath dress, bare legs and heels (as shown above), but for a younger grad student presenting a poster this look might make her appear overdressed.

Basic pieces for fashionable lady scientists:
  • Pencil skirt or A-line skirt in black, or another neutral color, just above or just below the knee. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • A great fitting pair of dress slacks. (shown here from Banana Republic) Pant style trends change a lot. These can also be tough to find off-the-rack. Some stores offer tailoring services, ask the salesclerk about getting them professionally hemmed. 

  • Stretch cotton button-up dress shirt in white, or another neutral color. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Pretty, feminine blouses: long sleeve, short sleeve, or sleeveless. No need to shy from prints and bright colors. (shown here from Loft)

  • Solid-colored, scoop-neck or draped-neck t-shirts for wearing alone or layering, also called "shells" - these can be casual or dressy.  (This Halogen top from Nordstrom, below, is the shit. I have it in three colors!)
  • Sheath dress - for a sophisticated nighttime banquet look.  (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Fitted, dark denim jeans - can be business casual or casual depending on the rest of your outfit. (shown here from Banana Republic)
  • Cardigans. Lots of cardigans. Cardigans in all shapes and colors. Great for layering and cold conference rooms. (shown here from Banana Republic)

  • Blazer. A good cropped blazer will immediately upgrade any outfit, including jeans and a t-shirt, or can be worn with dress slacks for a more formal look.  (shown here from Macy's)
  • Scarf. Keeps you warm on planes AND dresses up an otherwise boring casual outfit AND looks classy as fuck.  If you don't know how to tie a scarf, check out this video.  (shown here from Nordstrom)

  • A full-coverage bra that FITS, preferably one that matches your skin tone.  I'm talking a heavy duty, fully-lined kind that your partner thinks is really ugly but looks good under any outfit. Also keep in mind your bra size changes as you age, so it's a good idea to get refitted if yours are not totally comfortable. (shown here from Macy's)
  • Camisoles a.k.a. camis in neutral tones to wear under semi-transparent or low-cut shirts. (shown here from Macy's). I wear these things all the time! I have them in white, black and nude. Sometimes a silky undershirt like this helps even a simple a t-shirt lay better.  

  • Opaque tights, in black or another neutral color, to wear under skirts or dresses. Are especially helpful for making short skirt seem more conservative. (shown here from Macy's)
  • Faux-leather tote-bag.  I bought a Nine West tote bag for a conference and I loved it so much that it became my default purse and carry-on.  It has pockets for my phone and wallet, fits my laptop, and the best part is I got it at Ross. (shown here from Macy's)

  • A good belt or two or four.  Waist-level to wear over shirts/dresses or to wear with slacks.  Here are some great tips for accessorizing with belts from The New Professional.
  • Jewelry.  A tasteful long necklace, bracelet, or pair of droop earrings can help pull a look together. I've heard some people say "no hoop earrings," as a rule, but I've worn them before at a conferences.
  • Comfortable flats. I love ballet flats. They are so versatile. Get them in a few colors. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Comfortable pumps.  Yes, they exist, but you'll need to pay more for ones that are comfortable.  Try to stick to less than 3", avoid stilettos and platforms. (shown here from Aldo Shoes)
  • Oxfords.  My favorite kind of shoe! I like to wear little invisible booty socks underneath and pair them with a cropped dress pants, it's so cute. (shown here from Aldo Shoes)
  • Boots? Stick to calf-length or lower and wear them with longer skirts and/or opaque tights. Boots are hard to pack but so necessary if it's cold and wet outside. If they're impossible to pack, wear them on the plane. If the weather is disgusting at the conference location, you could even wear boots TO the conference and change into flats when you get there. (shown here from Frye on Zappos)

Balancing a look:
Here are some examples of well-balanced outfits (more on Pinterest).

Balance a colorful, feminine blouse with conservative flat-front slacks and thin belt.
from Banana Republic
Dress-up a pair of jeans with a blouse, jewelry and cardigan or blazer.
from Loft
Dark tights and a cardigan will tone-down the sexy-secretary level of a fitted skirt, heels and blouse.
from Nordstrom
Cropped slacks and a tweed blazer with a knit tank underneath.  It's not a pantsuit because they don't match, OK?  This look is so versatile.  She could wear jeans instead for more casual look, wear a button-up blouse instead for more conservative look, or remove the blazer and add jewelry for more sophisticated look.
from Nordstrom

Slim-down a pair of wide leg trousers with a tailored, fitted top and wide belt (at the waist)
Good rule of thumb: baggy on bottom, fitted on top, but not both.
from Donna Karan via Net-a-porter

Wear a loose-fitting blouse and cardigan over trendy skinny-fit slacks (covers the butt).
Good rule of thumb: fitted on bottom, baggy on top, but not both.
The heels the model is wearing look a bit too trendy and impractical for a conference, but a pair of oxfords would be a great alternative.
from Nordstrom

Add some personality to a fitted pencil-skirt and blouse with a hot pink sweater.  I love this look. Doesn't she look so excited to tell you about her poster on organic chemistry research?  Sidenote: the socks + heels thing is trendy right now and I don't really get it haha
from Nordstrom

Pair baggy, masculine trousers with a skinny belt and a pretty, feminine secretary blouse.
This look from The Classy Cubicle.

Dark colors always look very fashionable. I love to experiment with layering.
Also, I'm kind of obsessed with every outfit this girl puts together.
from HipsterHijabis

Other tips for conference travel (what I do):
  • Before you travel, try on every outfit combination at home before you decide what to pack. Try your tops on with the bra you're bringing. Preferably do this when you still have a few extra days to go shopping. You may discover those dress slacks you had in the back of your closet for three years no longer fit. 
  • Pack groups of clothes that are in a similar color family, so most pieces match and are interchangeable. For example, I pack clothes that are all black, gray and blue. This way it's easier to create outfits with different combinations.
  • Pack extra tops and underthings in case you need to change partway through the day, especially if it's warm or you plan to do sightseeing or socializing after the conference.  
  • Make sure you're able to stand and walk comfortably in your shoes.  
  • Bring comfortable shoes.
  • Pack band-aids in case your otherwise comfortable dress shoes rub the back of your heels raw.
  • When you get to the conference, unpack immediately and iron and hang your clothes.
  • Dress in layers.  Always have a cardigan on hand in case the venue's AC is rocking.
  • Umbrella..? Check the weather ahead of time.
  • Observe! Make notes! What are other women wearing? What looks do you like? Make a mental shopping list for next time. :) 
  • Seriously, bring comfortable shoes.

Good stores to shop in: In case you hate shopping like I do and need more inspiration. Check out the 'work clothing' or 'career wear' or 'business wear' sections.

Check out my Pinterest board for all these looks and more.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How bad is it?

"The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about."

From Discover Magazine's Discoblog summary of the "Year’s Best Peer Review Comments..." (December, 2010)

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I'm in Honolulu, Hawaii for The Electrochemical Society's Pacific Rim Meeting (PRiME) on Electrochemical and Solid-State Science.  I'll be presenting on behalf of my advisor in the State-of-the-Art Program on Compound Semiconductors symposium.

I love to travel and talk about our research, and even if the day-to-day drudgery of experiments can be soul-crushing sometimes, conferences are definitely one of the perks of my job and make me love being a scientist.

I lucked out in several ways -- not only lucky that I got to come here in the first place, but also I'm the FIRST speaker of the FIRST session on the FIRST day of the conference.  So I get the rest of the week to relax and enjoy myself in Waikiki!  Oh, and attend talks and network, of course.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Optical benches

The first rule of optical benches is DO NOT FUCK WITH THE MIRRORS.


The other day I was exhausted and not thinking and totally fucked with one of the mirrors of an optical bench in a shared lab-space.  FUCK.  As soon as I realized what I did, I sent an apologetic email to the poor guy in charge of carefully realigning everything.  

Luckily, mistakes happen and our lab managers are pretty forgiving as long as you come forward and admit what happened in a timely manner so they can take care of things.  Still, it's pretty embarrassing for someone with as much lab experience as myself.  Especially when there are signs on all the mirror stands that say "DO NOT TOUCH."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

LED lighting and the American public

Ikea announced recently that it will sell 100% LED-based lighting products by the year 2016, making it the first home furniture chain in the US to completely ban less-efficient light sources. The company cites a commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency as their primary goal, yet they also seem to recognize amazing potential and versatility of LED lighting.

Of course this is good news for everyone: from LED innovators (my research group) and customers (everyone).  Some statistics I read in their press release were actually pretty interesting.

From BusinessWire:
  • Less than one-half of Americans (43%) have at least one LED bulb in their house, compared to China (80%), Russia (65%) and Sweden (61%)  [1]
  • Only one-third (34%) of Americans say LED lights provide similar lighting quality to incandescent bulbs, compared to China (77%) and Russia (61%)  [1]
  • More than 1/3 (34%) of people don’t know that LED bulbs use less energy  [2]
  • Only 27% of people know that these bulbs last 20 years  [2]
  • When told of LED savings, 86% of Americans say they’re interested in switching  [1]
Sources:  [1] IKEA Global Study &  [2] Wakefield Research

Despite efforts from the US Department of Energy to inform consumers about the benefits of LED lighting, including standardized test procedures and packaging labels, or LED rebate programs, these surveys show that many Americans are still lack knowledge of the benefits and properties of LEDs.

Are Americans ignorant because they are anti-intellectual, anti-technology, or were the early adopters turned off by the crappy LED Christmas lights they saw at the dollar store four years ago and don't think the technology has advanced from that?

I understand it takes time for technology to become mainstream, and the price of the products need to come down for sure.  Assuming the price comes down to <$10 a bulb, what else needs to happen for more people to catch on to the benefits and modern advancements in LED products?  Is this even an engineering problem anymore or is it a marketing problem?