Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Does science favor the biased mind?

Most of us in academia (if not more broadly) have heard Louis Pasteur's famous quotation, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind," from his 1854 lecture at the University of Lille. But how is prepared any different from biased in the context of this adage? Indeed, are you not more ready to accept an association (whether it be about science or people) when it includes something that is either explicitly or implicitly familiar? That preparation or bias enables new findings, but it can also hinder you when it leads you to hold on to false hypotheses.

The cover of the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly features the winner of the most recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I haven't done a crossword in years, and word puzzles are far from my expertise. Under normal circumstances, it is a story that I would have ignored in favor of, for example, the side story documenting Anne-Marie Slaughter's decision to become the next President of the New American Foundation. But I read this one first. Why? Because among the many words included on the winning crossword shown on the cover was "OXIDE." Both as a chemist and as the director of OXIDE, I have a strong association with this word. It gives me happy feelings. This bias led me to read the crossword article first before the others. To the extent that each article in a magazine is vying to be read, this means that the crossword puzzle article won the race for my eyeballs. And that only because of an accidental bias that had little to do with the article. The question is how does bias play into my scientific endeavors for good or for bad?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Our focus on diversity

Today marks the two-week anniversary of the National Diversity Equity Workshop (NDEW2013) that we organized in Arlignton, VA. Over 70 chemistry department chairs, representatives, sociologists and federal agency program officers participated in this very hands-on effort. I'm happy to report that several of the department representatives have gone back to their departments (in faculty meetings or in other public forums) to discuss diversity equity in the recruitment, retention and promotion of their students (undergraduates through postdocs) and their faculty. This makes me optimistic that diversity equity is becoming a true driver for academic excellence!

NDEW 2013 is one of OXIDE's activities, as funded by a consortium of agencies (NSF, DOE, and NIH) back in August 2012 to work with department heads across the nation in a top-down effort to remove diversity inequities that may be stalling our efforts to achieve commensurate demographics in our faculties. The Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) is a partnership between Chemistry Department Chairs, Social Scientists, and everyone in between... The initiation of this effort was featured on the Georgia Tech College of Sciences web pages... “OXIDE Aims to Find the Best Minds for the Job”.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Chemistry is Everywhere

As I travel, as I teach, as I research, I find that science helps to explain (& predict) everything I see. As each grain of sand is but one small part of the greater beach, I hope that these entries will build to tell a story of how chemistry truly is everywhere... Corny I know, but this is what I tell my students. If only they use the tools we learn in class, then the world will make a lot more sense. When they turn on an air-conditioner will it humidify or dehumidify as it cools the air? The answer lies in thermodynamics.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What's in a name? (Part 2)

Whither ACS or American Chemical Society? I am as guilty as the next person in using TLA's. We are all taken by the apparent quickness in its brevity. Knowledge of a given TLA also conveys membership in the club. However, what do we lose in using such a nickname? We forget that "American" implies the history of our society as having emerged from the U.S.A. or the American continent. The history of science as being useful (or practical) has roots in the beginning of American academic institutions which added this component to the Old World's canonical objective of advancing science for its own sake. As the world has come to adopt the extended notion that science can be both practical and beautiful, the "American" has also come to embrace our international position in science. Using ACS, we also neglect to say the word "Chemical" which means we lose focus on the molecular sciences that unites us in the first place. Equally importantly, we lose "Society" and the power of our professional network. Indeed, the on-line ACS Network—Are you in?—is one way that the ACS is evolving to provide added-value to our members by strengthening our professional network online in a focused way that neither FaceBook nor LinkedIn can provide.

I'm proud of these two brands, Rigoberto and the American Chemical Society. Both symbolize my ownership of my identity as an American and as an International citizen. Both recognize my roots, one in my native country, and one in my discipline. Both speak to the fact that I am a member of a collective. And most importantly, I do not want to hide these things behind a nickname that obscures these  facts.  So to you, my friend, I ask that you call me Rigoberto and a member of the American Chemical Society.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's in a name? (Part 1)

Whether you recognize it or not, we all have brands. Like most businesses, we have an overall brand, our name, and a series of associated brands such as our titles, the various forms of our name, and the groups we associate with. The question is what does that brand say about us, and to what extent do we own it? Are we, like Pip in Great Expectations, destined to be defined by a childhood name whose implications we cannot escape? As Michelle recently observed in "Can I call you Katie?", sometimes nicknames are forced upon us. (More on issues related to diversity equity and the power of names to come in future posts.)

When I first went to college, I made the naive choice to adopt the nickname, Rig. I did this because I figured that I had to assimilate—following the great American dream—and assumed that my real name would be difficult to pronounce. Ironically, over the years, I have found that Rig presented hurdles to many Americans. We have trouble hearing the hard g, and tend to assume that it's Rick. Or we tend to add an extra g to ensure the hard g. Meanwhile, there is no such sound in Spanish. My own parents are unable to pronounce Rig. While it is clear that they would continue to call me Rigoberto regardless, this pronunciation barrier is shared by nearly all Spanish speakers. In short, by forsaking my full name I turned my attention away from my roots and gained little in the process.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hello Blogging...

Does the world really need another blog? Probably not. And yet, here I am starting one. To what end? I am not exactly sure. I'll post on what I find interesting or amusing in the world of chemistry. My posts will tend to have a theoretical/computational slant. They will tend to focus on diversity of all kinds. They will also focus, from time to time, on my activities through the various chemistry-related organizations that I am involved in. As much as anything else, I am looking to see if there are any responses to the posts, and hope to shape my views based upon them.