Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The parenting experimentalist

I know not every woman is blessed with a gracious and helpful mother-in-law, so I'll refrain from bragging too much.  That being said: she's pretty cool and I'm lucky to have her around, especially since we live on the opposite coast from my parents.  She comes over once or twice a week to watch the baby so I can get some quiet writing time (rather than furiously drafting letters and posts while the little one naps).  Something she mentioned this morning got me thinking about the parallels between raising a well-scheduled baby and being a successful experimentalist.

First a caveat: I have been a parent for a little less than ten glorious months and am expressing my own opinions below (I am a doctor, but not the medical kind).

As far as I can tell, there are two major camps in the child-rearing arena: free-range parenting vs. rigid-schedule parenting.  I think both sides catch a lot of flack, mostly because sticking to extremes does not appear to benefit anyone.  I certainly do not advocate trashing a parent whose theories contrast with mine, unless of course that parent also feels strongly about how graphene is the material of the future, in which case I will semi-jokingly comment with a straight face that your ideas are garbage and you should rethink your belief system (more on this in a future post).  That being said, I will admit I fall in-line closer with those brave parents who stand up to their kids and strongly suggest to them that they are, in fact, tired and should go to bed.

The important factor for functionally scheduling a baby is learning how and when to be flexible, and how to appropriately react to deviations in schedule without melting down.  There are some days I feel like I should tape a picture of the Hitchhiker's Guide to my baby's onesie (the cover says "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters... for those of you who aren't huge nerds).  Overall, however, I think I do a fairly good job of balancing schedule with improvisation, and this I attribute to my background as an experimentalist.

How being an experimentalist prepared me for motherhood:

1) Never expect the same outcome for the same procedures
Expecting that an experiment will yield a positive result just because it worked last time is setting yourself up for failure.  Nothing makes a negative result more disappointing than banking on it working and then watching it fail.  Even routine procedures sometimes fail because of circumstances out of your control.  We used to joke in grad school that all you need to graduate is a "hero sample": the one time a device or major experiment works and rescues you from interminable grad school purgatory.  If all you need is for it to work once, then by all means, get your hopes up.  If you need repeatability, then buckle down because you're in for the long haul.

There seems to be a strong consensus among my mom-friends that a well-executed bedtime routine makes tucking the little one into her crib much, much easier.  However, just because I do everything exactly the same night after night, I can never guarantee that she is going to fall asleep and (more importantly) stay asleep for an extended period of time.  Consistency is important, but it does not mean that it will work.   And that is okay.

2) Adjust on the fly: be over-prepared and have a backup plan
Because outcomes vary, sometimes you have to make quick decisions to keep everything together.  In an experimental lab, equipment often times will (spectacularly) fail, even against your best efforts.  Remembering to breathe in critical moments can make the difference between rescuing the situation with dignity and absolute mayhem.  There was a moment in my last year of grad school when another member of the lab was moving a sample inside the vacuum chamber and it mostly slipped off the transfer mechanism.  We were very close to losing the sample and also potentially having to take the costly steps to open the chamber in order to unblock the transfer mechanism.  As the senior student in the lab, I had to step up and save the sample.  Even while I was working on this misalignment, I already had the backup plan thought out.  We could conceivably get the chamber opened, re-establish vacuum, and have it up and running again in a few days.  Standard operating procedures set in place ahead of time detailed the work to recover from this kind of error and prevented any sort of extended panic.

It would be easy to never leave the safe haven of the house with the baby, but then we might go stir-crazy.  A strategically packed diaper bag is the only reason I can take her anywhere and not worry about getting caught at the store during a meal time.  In anticipation of these circumstances, we taught her to eat from a squeeze pouch (which, incidentally, she loves) in order to gain one meal on the road at any given time.  Additionally, being prepared in advance is critical when planning a vacation away from home and familiar settings.  The last long road trip we took as a family, we ended up driving from D.C. to Atlanta in one long stretch.  I packed a big bag of her toys that I used to rotate a new distraction into her car seat every 30 minutes, and we managed to only have to stop three times in 11 hours.

3) Learn how to turn sh*t into gold (don't allow failures to phase you)
This is one of my advisor's favorite sayings in grad school, and it held true for a multitude of reasons.  Many, many aspects of an experiment are out of your control; sometimes you have to learn how to turn a bad situation into something useful.  In graduate school, this meant figuring out how to publish results when the systems were broken or under repair.  You had to be creative with samples and experiments that occurred in years prior, but I definitely got at least one conference talk out of this kind of situation.

There are plenty of examples of how to turn a bad moment with baby into something awesome, but I'm going to go with a literal one: my daughter has impressive bowel movements.  No really, they're epic. And I could certainly be phased by every time she busts through a newly-changed diaper and ruins an outfit, but I could also just enjoy the bath that necessarily follows and teach her how to splash in the tub and that her rubber ducky says "quack."  --As long as it doesn't get on my hands.  That really is the worst.

**And lastly**

4) Pay attention to the background noise, because it really really helps
I keep saying this, but I really think it makes a big difference.  The importance of mindfulness in the lab cannot be overstated.  Same goes for raising a scheduled, but flexible, baby.  Paying attention to small details helps notify me of an impending meltdown, or hunger, or an off-schedule nap.  My daughter may not be able to talk yet, but she communicates so much as long as I stay attentive.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

SOPs for every day life

The other day I was grilling chicken and burgers for dinner while simultaneously rushing around cleaning the house and feeding the baby her late-afternoon meal.  Bless her little heart, she tends to have her hangry (hungry-angry) meltdowns at exactly the least convenient times.  All of this combined led to a somewhat frenetic session with the grill, compounding my already serious distaste for touching raw meat.  As much as I love cooking, I have never acclimated to prepping and touching raw meats; my health-conscious self doesn't allow for me to leave the skin on the chicken, which then necessitates additional handling to remove the said skin (btw, kitchen scissors are incredibly useful for this purpose!).  Already hyperaware of the contaminants that live on raw meat, I'm even more paranoid now because i regularly have to check in with the baby while in the middle of a cooking.

In the midst of this chaos, I found myself keenly aware of which hand had touched the raw meat and which had not.  Designating "clean" and "dirty" hands made it simpler to get in and out of the house to the grill without worrying about collateral raw chicken damage on the doorknobs or countertops.  Without even thinking, I had reverted to one of the most basic and fundamental SOPs from my grad school training.

SOPs, or standard operating procedures, are the basis of any well-functioning lab or workspace.  They ensure that every member of the team follows the same maintenance steps, experimental design methods, and lab hygiene norms.  Without strong clearly-defined SOPs small details can be lost, and mistakes that seem innocuous can ruin someone's day (or month).  Diagnosing a problem can also be made much simpler, going back through the SOP and identifying the deviations from procedure.  The focus on having unambiguous and thoughtful SOP reflects the mindful engineering described in a previous post.   The more rigorous and careful the procedures, the more intuitive the basic operation becomes, allowing the user to be more aware of deviations from the norm.  It is both a method for habituating to good practices as well as a way to stay acutely cognizant of the noise.

While a graduate student, I probably trained 8-10 new students in lab procedures.  The first SOP that every grad student learned was, at face value, stupidly easy, but also ended being somewhat of a litmus test for their ability to pick up and maintain procedures.  The basic premise was learning how to put on and maintain "clean" gloves.  Sounds easy, right?  In many respects it is a simple procedure, but it is absolutely crucial for the type of work we did.  In molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) research, the quality of work depends heavily on the purity of the vacuum (or ultra-high vacuum) achievable in the machine.  Ideally in the 1E-12 - 1E-14 Torr range, even marginal amounts of water vapor contamination can ruin your experiment.  (Unless of course you are running an oxide MBE system, but I digress).  So you can imagine how critical it is to keep contaminants from reaching the inside of the system.  Hence the procedure for clean gloves.  Every student had to learn to distinguish "clean" and "dirty" gloves, even though "dirty" in this case doesn't mean actual dirt.  The procedure was two-fold:

1) Learning to put on a "clean" nitrile glove over the "dirty" base-layer glove without touching any part of the "clean" glove (other than the cuff).

And (even more importantly):

2) Keeping the "clean" glove clean.

The latter requires a good amount of spatial awareness and unconscious focus.  Mindfulness was critical, and I spent many hours demonstrating how to complete procedures that depended at their core on the immaculate condition of the gloves performing the steps.  Without this basic SOP, none of the following SOPs would matter.  It's mindful engineering that helps keep something as simple as having on clean gloves above the noise of all the other complex steps.  Simple, but critical. Mindless but for applied mindfulness.


By the way, I did manage to get everything done in time and the chicken turned out fantastic.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Small victories, or why engineers are different than other people

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is by starting at the end.  The "ending" in this case, involved me reenacting my best fist-pump a la Tiger Woods circa mid-2000s (disclaimer: not a promotion of TW or his questionable life choices) in the laundry room while my husband stood nearby holding the baby with a bemused look on his face.

Now for the beginning:  I think I am not alone in saying that I take pleasure in small victories.  Finding a couple bucks in a pocket of a coat not worn since last winter, taking the cookies out of the oven right when the edges are crispy and the center is gooey, spending a beautiful summer night outdoors without a mosquito bite (not impossible but quite improbable), etc etc.  However, I think that my husband derives great amusement in watching just how much I enjoy small engineering victories... or maybe just because of the scale in which I choose to celebrate them.  In this instance, I was reveling in a triumph over suboptimal washer performance. When we moved into our home we made the economical and responsible choice of purchasing high-efficiency washer and dryers.  (Aside: after observing many cycles I am still suspicious that the clothes are more likely than not spending 45 minutes being damp rather than actually getting clean).  Our home is older, built in the mid-1950s and has pipes to match.  For the first few months we lived in the house, we were treated to loud banging sounds in the floor with every washer cycle.  It was inconvenient at worst, and mostly just prevented us from running the wash during the baby's nap time.  I chocked it up to the old pipes and decided it wasn't worth the stress of crawling around under the house to add extra clamps to dampen the sound.

I likely would have left it at that, if not for a brief flashback that hit me just as i was running a load of towels last week.  The sounds were amplified over previous iterations and I finally went down into the basement to check it out, paranoid that the problem left untreated was about to bite me in the ass in the form of a burst pipe.  As I was swatting away the cobwebs and avoiding touching the multitude of daddy longlegs, I saw the cold water pipe at the entry point to the house shuddering periodically as the washer tub was filling in the laundry room.  The *chunk* *chunk* *chunk* sound was rattling dangerously through the pipes and vibrating the copper down the length of the house.  I groaned and muttered to myself about poor construction, blaming my current state of affairs on the original builders of the house and ignoring my neglectful participation in the issue for the past six months.  Previously, I did my best to ignore the sound of the pipes, but now I listened.  And then, out of the blue, a veritable lightbulb (or LED for the energy conscious) lit up above my head, and I knew the problem AND the solution!

In grad school I worked on running various water lines in the lab, both big and small, mostly for the cooling the externalities of the various ultra-high vacuum parts.  Standard operating procedures (SOP) reminded us to take care in avoiding the generation of water hammers, whose pressure could disastrously damage the more delicate parts and potentially even "fish tank" the system (that's pretty much the worst case scenario for a vacuum system maintaining ~1E-12 Torr).  That type of disaster is what motivated some very specific SOPs in how to properly open and close water flow.  The times in which they were accidentally (or delinquently) ignored, you could hear the *chunk* sound of the water pushing through suddenly.  And that was it.  A water hammer.

High-efficiency machines don't fill continuously like old standard systems.  Rather, they pulse water as the barrel rolls* and this causes the water to quickly turn on and off, hence the water hammers.  Once I knew what it was, the solution was easy.  A $10 water hammer arrestor from your local friendly hardware store or Amazon can be installed on the machine side of the hot and cold water sources and will dampen the effects.  The installation was only stressful because I was trying to get a wrench to the back of the machine while squeezed tightly in between the washer and the utility sink that I love so much.  (Side note: utility sinks are invaluable when raising a baby whose impressive bowels frequently overwhelm her diaper and make a mess of everything).  Ten minutes later I checked the lines for leaks and ran a test wash.  There is still a slight vibration at the lines, but the hammer is almost entirely dampened.  Amazing.

Full circle, now I'm celebrating with a perfectly executed fist-pump, and my husband is watching this happen.  Sometimes small instances of good problem solving, using built-up knowledge and intuition, can be the most rewarding.  It is with enormous pride that I am able to look at a problem I fixed and say that I am an engineer.  We are a strange group, but we love what we do.

*do a barrel roll!