Sabbatical report: Context switching

I’m now about 6 months in to my year-long sabbatical. Currently, I’m working on two very different sub-projects. Each sub-project is related to my larger research project on self-healing home networks, and each one approaches the larger project from the lens of the two subfields I straddle.

The first sub-project is more mathematical/theoretical. I’m attempting to create a mathematical model of a home network, based on my own measurement work and the measurement studies of others. I submitted a paper in December, which was rejected but got really helpful reviews. Even the infamous Reviewer 3 had constructive and kind things to say. (Thanks, anonymous reviewers!) So now I’m working to make the model more mathematically rigorous. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the computer networks perspective, and also harkens back to my electrical engineering days, when it seems like every graduate class I took had “processes” in the title (Stochastic Processes, Random Processes, etc.).

The second sub-project could not be more different from the first. It’s a qualitative, interview based study on how people reason about the networks within their homes. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the human-computer interaction (HCI) side. The research methods I’m utilizing are completely new to me, so the learning curve has been large. While I’ve done some math for this project (mainly freshening up my knowledge of statistics), the bulk of the work resembles work that a social scientist would normally do.

The disparity in approaches of the two sub-projects has made for some interesting work weeks. I spent a few days recently cozying up with my old Stochastic Processes textbook trying to remember the details of Markov chains vs. autoregressive models, drawing lots and lots of diagrams, and calculating transition probability matrices. I haven’t thought in such a mathematically rigorous way in a while, so while my skills are definitely rusty, it felt good to return to that mode of thinking. Interspersed with this work are days where I’m reviewing techniques for asking effective interview questions, testing out my recording equipment, strategizing about how to recruit participants, and refining my interview guide. This is an entirely new way of thinking and working for me, so I alternate between feeling like a fish completely out of water and invigorated by the intellectual challenge.

There was probably a time early in my career when I couldn’t fathom working in two such disparate areas. But now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like that I’ve found my research passions in two very different subfields. I love that each field engages a different part of my brain. I appreciate that I’ve identified research problems that straddle both fields. I love the opportunity to do and write about math-y things AND design/people-y things. I love that I can use different tools and skill sets to construct models about the world.

I embrace and enjoy the context-switching that my research life entails.

A look back at 2016

I wasn’t planning on doing an end-of-the-year post for 2016.

As far as I’m concerned, 2016 has way overstayed its welcome. In many respects, it’s been a shitty, difficult year from start to finish. From some really difficult, nasty, unbloggable stuff I dealt with in my last year as chair; to the extreme burnout from my job (which had taken such a toll on my physical, mental, and emotional health that I still haven’t fully recovered); to the passing of so many celebrities from my childhood and formative years (I learned about Carrie Fisher’s passing, I kid you not, as we were leaving the theater after watching Rogue One); to the dumpster fires and horrors that were our presidential election, Aleppo, Brexit, and any other number of world events — there’s a lot to be sad/angry/horrified by from 2016. So, yeah, 2016 can just go away, far far away, as far as I’m concerned.

But as I sat on the plane on the way home from my mom’s house yesterday morning, I realized that I didn’t want to end 2016 on a sour note. I’ve spent so much of my time and energy this year (necessarily) ruminating on the bad, but the truth is that a lot of good happened too. And frankly, I’d like to head into the new year with positive momentum to balance some of the anger and despair.

So I am doing an end-of-the-year post, a look back at 2016, focusing on some of the positives from the year. In a future post, I’ll talk about what I want to do to keep this positive momentum moving into the new year.

  1. It was a pretty good year professionally. 2016 was a pretty solid year professionally with a lot of interesting opportunities: co-chairing the Grace Hopper poster session (with an incredibly talented, warm, funny person whom I hope to work with again in the future!), attending Tapia for the first time, continuing to expand my work in academic civic engagement (including attending POSSE and finding an excellent community there), finishing up my stint as chair on (hopefully) a high note, submitting my promotion materials. It also brought clarity and better judgment: I turned down a service opportunity that would have meant a lot of visibility, but wouldn’t have fit in with my larger goals, in favor of a smaller, local opportunity that fits in much better with my larger goals (watch this space in the future for more on that!).
  2. I reprioritized family. My crazy-ass schedule last year meant that I wasn’t always present for my family, and when I was, I was too stressed to be fully present (or, as my kids observed, “You yell a lot when you’re home, Mom.”).
    Highline Trail, Glacier National Park, USA.

    Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, one of the (many) hikes we did on our epic road trip.

    I made the conscious decision to dial way back on work this summer: not supporting summer students, not teaching in the summer program, spending Fridays and several full weeks home with my kiddos. My spouse, kids, and I took a 2 week epic camping road trip (6 national parks/monuments/memorials*, 6 states**) this summer that was just amazing. My sabbatical means that I’m working sane hours, which means that I can be fully present on weeknights and weekends, which means I can actually enjoy family time. My son started taekwondo this year, and it looked like so much fun that I recently joined him. I’m looking forward to us earning our black belts together someday!

  3. I ran. A lot. 1089 miles, to be exact, not counting whatever I end up running today***, and (woo hoo) injury free! I ran my 2nd marathon in October and PRed by 9 minutes. Best of all, I found an online community of mother runners, some of whom I trained with virtually during my marathon training cycle and some of whom I still virtually keep in touch with. I’m looking forward to marathon #3 next year, and maybe some half marathons, too.
  4. Sabbatical, sabbatical, sabbatical. I can’t tell you how positive this experience has been for every single aspect of my life. I didn’t realize the extent to which my job nearly broke me last year, and over the last few years. I feel normal again. I’ve reset my priorities, my work habits, and my professional goals. I fell in love with my research again. I’ve already submitted one paper and sketched out a brand new research project that will really stretch me professionally. I wake up every day excited to get back to work, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a very, very long time.

I’m still not sad to see 2016 go, but reflecting on the good makes me feel a smidge more hopeful about 2017. In many ways, 2016 clarified what my personal truths are, and I plan on using these truths to frame and structure my 2017. There are many things I can’t control, but there are many things I can do to be the change I want to see in this world. And that, I think, will be my guiding principle for 2017.

* In the order we visited: Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mount Rushmore

** Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming

***I am super tempted to run 11 miles today to make it an even 1100 miles for the year. We’ll see.

#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.

Trip report: GHC 2016

I’m writing this post on the plane ride home from Grace Hopper on Friday afternoon. Unlike previous years, I escaped the conference early: a compromise with my kids since I was at a conference last month and will be at a workshop next month. Still, it feels like I managed to squeeze about 10 days into 3, so while on one level I’m sad to be missing the last keynote and tonight’s party (and dinner with Carleton folks present and past!), on another level I’m just done with conferencing.

It’s been several years since I’ve done a proper conference trip report — I used to do them semi-regularly (see here, for example), but in the past few years life’s gotten in the way. But I wanted to honor my time at the conference this year, so I’m resurrecting the trip report tradition.

I should come clean first, though: After last year’s conference, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to attend this year. I’m not a fan of Houston (sorry, Houston!), and logistically last year was kind of a pain. Plus I knew I wanted to attend Tapia and wasn’t thrilled about going to 2 conferences so close together. But then I was tapped to be Posters Co-Chair, and it sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up. And then since I was going anyway, I agreed to speak in the CRA-W early faculty career track and volunteer in the Student Opportunity Lab. On top of that, I had my LACAFI booth organizing/setup/wrangling duties.

Apparently my conference motto is: If you’re going to attend, be busy!

The days and weeks leading up to the conference were busy: working with my co-chair to select and assign ACM Student Research Competition (SRC) poster and finals judges; working with my co-presenter on our slides and role-play scenarios for our CRA-W session; stressing over whether we had enough people to cover the booth during the Expo hours. (This year a lot of our usual booth-staffing suspects took GHC off, either because they were at Tapia and/or they’re going to SIGCSE. We missed you, intrepid volunteers!) Then there were receptions and breakfasts and meetups to keep track of. I actually had to put everything on my calendar and set multiple alarms so that I knew exactly where I had to be and when. It was looking very likely that I was not going to make it to any sessions that I was not leading or speaking at, so I didn’t even bother to look at the program.

To add more excitement to the mix, I realized a few days before the conference that my constant desire to sleep and my low-level ever-present funk was not due to recovering from the marathon I had just run, but was in fact my depression flaring up. Good times. I was worried, because I knew I’d have to be “on” a lot of the time I was at GHC, and was starting to dread going. I decided to give myself permission to skip out on anything that was not absolutely necessary if need be, to be a hermit when I needed to, and to escape the conference when possible, to recharge and try and keep the depression at bay. I’m happy to say that my strategy worked, and I was able to cope and function at a decent level. The knowledge that I was leaving the conference early also helped. This meant that I didn’t seek out people I knew to the extent that I normally do, but it was worth it for self-preservation.

I arrived in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, along with what felt like half of the 15,000 attendees of the conference. I was hoping to have some time to relax before attending the HP Inc reception as an NCWIT member that evening, but a longish wait for my luggage and a taxi meant I had enough time to quickly unpack and then head to the reception. The reception was at a really cool place, and I spent a lot of time chatting with someone I haven’t caught up with in a while. It was weird to be at an HP reception, given my former life as an HP Labs post-doc, but it was neat to hear about what HP’s up to now and to share stories about my time there. All of the HP women there were so friendly and welcoming, and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I skipped the keynote on Wednesday morning, sadly, to set up our LACAFI booth. I had to get more creative than I intended with our limited space, but I made do. Once the Expo opened, our swag disappeared quickly, so we’ll definitely have to bring more next year.

I knew that the afternoon/evening would be crazy full, so I escaped the conference for a while to recharge and grab some cheap Tex-Mex food. Once the Expo opened, I came back to check on our booth, then wandered around the Expo. I kept running into alums, which was awesome. I promised some of them I’d find them later, a promise I did not keep. (Sorry, alums! Nice to see you briefly, anyway!) I also randomly ran into my posters co-chair, whom I’d never met in person, so we chatted for a bit. She is awesome, and I hope I get to work with her again someday.

Wednesday afternoon was the poster session and the first part of the SRC. Hilarity ensued (only hilarious now in hindsight) when the first poster judges came back to tell us that they could not find the poster numbers we assigned them — turns out we had posters listed by submission IDs, but they were actually numbered by position in the hall, and there was no easy mapping between them. Whoops! Luckily our judges did not revolt, and were super patient as we figured things out. (We joked that we gave them an encryption problem to solve before they could judge the posters.) Judging took way longer than we expected, but we finally figured out the finalists from the judges’ scores and got that info to our awesome ABI contact. At this point, my co-presenter for the CRA-W talk showed up so we could go over our slides and plan for our talk the next morning, after which we headed to a reception for CRA-W scholars. The reception was a great end to the day, but I was totally wiped afterwards, and collapsed into bed as soon as I got back to my room.

Thursday morning began with our CRA-W talk on balancing teaching, research, and service in academia. The talk was way better attended than I expected given the early hour and intended audience. And the role-plays we planned (my co-presenter’s idea) were a hit! The audience was game to participate, asked great questions, and offered great tips and advice to each other.

Afterwards, I met up with my colleague David, who was wrangling the students this year, and chit-chatted about sabbatical and department stuff. While I’m really enjoying sabbatical, I do miss the day-to-day encounters and conversations with my colleagues, so it was nice to reconnect. I then escaped for a bit to recharge, then headed back to the Expo to snap up some swag for my kiddos and chat up some people at the booths.

Thursday afternoon was as tightly packed as the previous day. We had the undergraduate and graduate SRC finals back-to-back, one of my duties as posters co-chair. The talks were fabulous and our judges were simply amazing and thoughtful. (One of my regrets for missing the Friday keynote is that I was not able to see these six incredible finalists receive their awards.) My co-chair and I then headed to one of my favorite annual events, the NCWIT reception. I met new people and caught up with some colleagues from liberal arts schools, took a picture with the rest of the CRA-W speakers, and got to hear a surprise speech from Megan Smith, the US CTO, who stopped by the reception. I always love what Megan has to say, so that was a fabulous treat. By this point, I was exhausted and my brain was mush, so I again collapsed (after stopping for gelato on the walk back to my hotel — priorities!) as soon as I got back to my room.

Friday started early with the CRA-W scholars breakfast. I sat with my posters co-chair; a colleague I see every year at GHC, SIGCSE, and NCWIT’s Summit; and some very enthusiastic students. If I have to be at something that early, it’s worth it when the conversation is that fabulous. I then went to an actual conference session (on motherhood in academia), then volunteered at the Student Opportunity Lab talking to students about how to get into undergraduate research, in somewhat of a speed-dating format. One last check of the LACAFI booth and the handoff of exhibitor’s credentials and I was on my way to the airport and back towards home.

My relationship with GHC has definitely changed over the years. While I think the conference is now way too big and way too career-fair focused, and while I think these are detrimental changes, I’m still surprised by the ways in which the conference rejuvenates me. What I get out of the conference now is very different from what I used to get out of the conference, and changes every year. This year, I definitely felt like my role was to mentor and give back to the community, but in giving to others in this way I was immensely fulfilled. I networked less, but felt more fulfilled by the interactions I chose to have. This year’s conference reaffirmed that GHC does still hold relevance to my professional life — maybe not on an every year basis anymore, but definitely within a rotation of conferences.