Back to work…

I am starting back at work part time this fall. I am really excited about being back in the classroom and using that part of my brain again.

I am also discovering how much time it takes to plan a course and especially a set of labs, especially without a dedicated office space and large chunks of completely uninterrupted time.

The Laser Mom blog posts are going to be rather intermittent for a little while until I get into the groove of classes and figure out a schedule that allows enough productive time for my class and some time on the side to work on the blog.

On a plus note, preparing for this class, and my daughter’s new mobility and curiosity had given me lots of new ideas for blog posts! I can’t wait to get back to it.

Infant Vision Research

I am planning on attending Frontiers In Optics this October. Although I am taking some time off from research and teaching to be with daughter, I would like to keep up with current research for when I go back to work in optics. This conference seems like a perfect opportunity to do so.

The conference is not for several more months, but they have already started posting information about speakers and special events online. One of the things I think is great about a big conference like this is that I get a chance to learn about a number of interesting topics that are not related to my own research (as well as many that are).

I was looking through the conference program and saw that there is a special symposium on Understanding the Developing and Aging Visual Systems. My own research is very different and I do not know that much about the eye, but I noticed that there are a couple of talks on infant eyes and vision. Ever since my daughter was born, I have been interested in the physics (and optics) of babies, so I immediately looked up some of the speakers.

Richard Aslin, from the University of Rochester, and Rowan Candy from Indian University both had the word infant in the titles of their talks, so I checked out their research web pages. I found out a lot about infant vision and some really fun links.

A few months ago, I wrote about what I can see in my daughter’s eyes. This Tiny Eyes website helps me to better understand what my daughter is seeing with those beautiful, inquisitive eyes. This site is so much fun – anyone with any interest in babies should go there to play. It let me upload a picture of one of my daughter’s toys (I chose her truncated icosahedron of course) and then showed me what this toy would probably look like to my daughter at different ages and different distances from her eye.

To give you an idea of how her vision develops over time, I looked at images of this toy held two feet away from her eyes, at different ages:

You can see how her vision progresses from seeing just a fuzzy blob when she is first born (upper left) to starting to see details around 8 weeks (upper right) to being able to see the toy more like I see it now that she is 10 months old. My daughter became much more interactive and interested in her toys (and less fussy) around 3 months. Maybe this is because she was starting to really see things? Now she likes to roll (bounce, throw, etc.) the ball back and forth.

The research on infant vision is really amazing. Rowan Candy’s group looks at eye movements and the electrical activity in the brain in infants to study the difference between normal and abnormal eye development. Eye tracking and brain imaging using near infrared light help Richard Aslin’s group learn how infants use visual cues in their learning and development.

For those of you less interested in infants, there are many other talks on the imaging and research into eyes and vision (including a plenary talk by Richard Williams on “Imaging Single Cells in the Living Retina”). I have plenty of eye issues myself, being pretty severely near sighted and having two eyes that do not work together, so I find this area of research really fascinating for personal reasons as well as being amazed at the cool optics involved. Sadly, my daughter will likely inherit my (and her father’s) terrible eyes.

Eyes and vision are certainly not my main area of research, and likely never will be, but my main focus has always been teaching and my students love to hear about how optics is related to the human eye. These types of topics get them really excited and motivate them to want to learn more.

Note to Laser Mom readers: I will be posting about Frontiers in Optics from time to time until the conference in October in lieu of my usual articles. Hopefully you will find these topics as interesting as my usual Physics thoughts and will enjoy learning more about the new and exciting things going on in the world of optics.

Scientific Parenting

I have recently started reading a book entitled Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sarah Miller and Christine Pfund. I have had this book for several years now and never found the time to open it. Not that I have a lot of extra time in my day for intellectual reading now, but I have at least made it through most of the introduction. It has made me think a bit about how teaching, science and parenting are all related.

The book talks about approaching teaching science in the same way that we approach research in science. I have not had any real training in teaching (or parenting!), but have had a lot of training as a scientific researcher, so it makes sense to make use of that training to help me in teaching and parenting. Also, as the book points out, teaching science should be done in the same way that we approach science – completely separating the two will never help our students learn what science is all about. Science is about being curious, exploring the world, and solving problems – these are all things that I hope are important to my daughter as she grows, whatever other things she ends up doing.

So how DO I approach my scientific research?

Curiosity is important. I need to want to know the answers and be interested in exploring new ideas. Experiments rarely work the way you expect and a desire to follow the experiment where it takes you is essential to making progress in science. This is easy for babies – they are naturally incredibly curious. Encouraging this in my students is sometimes more challenging, but helps make the class more interesting and engaging for everyone involved.

I start my research by clearly defining my goal or the problem I would like to solve. In my lab, this usually involves using lasers to make a better, more accurate microscope for looking at fiber optic circuits (the optical wires used to send information along the internet so you can read this blog). In teaching, this means deciding what skills and information I want my students to have when they leave my class. In parenting, this can range from helping my daughter learn how to sit up or fall asleep on her own to figuring out why she is so fussy and always spits up after eating.

The next step, which is one that is often overlooked, is determining how I will measure my success – how will I know if I succeeded? This was one of the most difficult issues in my research since I was measuring a completely unknown object – how do I know if my measurements are accurate? How do I know that my students have learned the Physics and problem solving skills that I wanted them to learn and that they have not just blindly memorized some facts and answers to certain problems? My daughter sleeping better on her own seems like an obvious indicator that I was successful in that, but how do I know what things make my daughter a fussy eater when there are so many factors that may affect her behavior? Success may seem clear in those cases, but if I do not understand what caused the success, then I cannot be sure she will remain happy (and sleeping well).

Once I have a goal and a method of measurement, I still need to figure out how to achieve that goal. I start with what I already know and use that information to design a set of experiments to learn more about the problem so that I can come up with a solution. For examples, I can give my students a pretest to see what they already know and then try different types of teaching methods and see how each affect their performance. I can alter my diet (since I am breastfeeding) to see what foods in my diet make my daughter upset. In scientific experiments, this is the part I find the most fun – the troubleshooting. It’s a lot like detective work (which is why all those crime shows on television really focus on the cool science behind solving crimes). It can also be incredibly frustrating since most things you try do not work. And if you really want to solve a problem, you need to slowly, systematically try many different approaches.

This sounds like a good, rational approach to parenting, but it is easier said than done. The consequence of not finding a solution fast enough with my daughter is lack of sleep and a very unhappy, screaming baby. Using a more systematic, calm approach will still likely result in a solution faster, but it is hard to be calm and methodical when my baby is upset (and while I am so sleep deprived). I do try to approach each new challenge in teaching and parenting with a scientific mind when I am well rested enough to think of it!

I am looking forward to finding more time to read this book on Scientific Teaching – both to improve my teaching of Physics and also to help give me ideas on approaches with my daughter. Much of parenting is teaching, after all, and she still has a lot of exciting things to learn.

Moving

I am taking this week off from blogging to move across country. It’s an exciting and busy week, with lots of Physics involved, so I am sure traveling and moving will appear in the blog in some form in the coming weeks.

Nothing says I love you like…

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I am reminded of all the people in my life that I love – my husband and daughter, my family and friends. While we do not generally participate in gift giving at this time of year, I know that some of you do and are probably wondering what the perfect gift would be for your loved ones. I have put together some suggestions of what people REALLY want for Valentine’s Day:

First, for pretty much anyone in your life that has any taste at all: Big Bang Theory, The Complete Fourth Season. This is the latest season of a great show about Physicists. But, who are we kidding, this came out last September, so we can only imagine that everyone you know and love already has this. But do they have:

For someone who likes practical gifts:  A handheld sonic screwdriver for fixing things around the house.

For my family members out there who love to play cards: Great Physicists Playing Cards.  One deck features great physicists from before 1960 and one the great physicists from after 1960. The set comes with a biographical booklet so you can learn about these great physicists while waiting for your partner to bid.

For those who light up your life, why not light up their life with a high power laser pointer? You can choose red, green, or violet laser light depending on your love’s favorite color. The green laser pointers are fantastic as pointers when out star gazing on clear night. (Note from the author: While these laser pointers are indeed very cool, they are also extremely dangerous and should definitely only be operated by a professional. For less dangerous, but equally cool green laser pointers, click here.)

For the travelers out there, there’s nothing like a laminated map to keep track of all the places you’ll visit together in the US, or more exotic locations for the adventurers.

And for those of you who prefer the more traditional gifts of flowers and chocolate, consider

None of these ideas are perfect for your Valentine? Check out Think Geek’s Valentine’s Gift buying guide.

Joy in Physics

I have been studying or working on Physics continuously for about 15 years now. When I was in college, I had no intention of studying Physics, but discovered the subject my sophomore year and found that I really loved it. I had a number of other interests as well, especially in languages and cultures, and divided my time pretty equally. But then, when I started graduate school, I needed to focus all my time and energy on Physics. My time in industry, as a researcher, and as a teacher were all the same. I missed spending time on other things and tried whenever possible to spend my out of work time on non-Physics related things (knitting, rock climbing, traveling, etc.).

I have always been surrounded by other Physicists who seem to love it so much more than I do. I hear them talking about trying to figure out how things work and calculating physical equations in their daily lives, thinking about research problems as they fall asleep, coming up with ideas for Physics problems on the way to and from work, and generally thinking about Physics for much of their day. I have always assumed that I just did not really like Physics as much as I ‘should.’ I have always firmly believed (and told my students on numerous occasions), that Physics is all around us in our daily lives, but honestly, I never wanted to think that much about it outside the classroom. I think I would be a better teacher if I did.

So why am I writing a blog on Physics?

At the end of the spring semester last year, I decided to take a break. I took much of the summer off, never working more than 20 hours a week on Physics-related tasks, and instead concentrated on my soon-to-be-born baby. Since my daughter has been born, there has been no time or energy for anything but thinking about her. And sleeping whenever possible (which is not very often it turns out).

Ever since my daughter was a couple of months old, I have found myself really thinking about the Physics of every day life. How loud does my daughter scream? How is the frequency content of her tired vs. hungry cries different? What’s the best way to heat a bottle of milk? Why should I breastfeed her when flying? What are the forces involved in her learning to roll over? Why is one way easier than the other? What cool images can we make with her play mirror by bending it? How does my breast pump work?

For the first time in 12 or so years, I really want to understand how everything around me works and think about how I can teach people these things and show them how interesting and fascinating Physics is.

I needed a break. Not a vacation by any means – caring for a baby is by far the hardest thing I have every done! But a break from Physics. A mental change of scenery.

It really is nice to have found that Joy of Physics again. The fascination with the world and how it works. I am glad it returned in time to share it with my daughter. Or maybe watching her explore the world around her with wide eyes has re-awakened that in me as well. It is definitely going to make me a better teacher when I get back to teaching Physics to students learning it for the first time. I hope I can share that joy and fascination with them. Not to mention all the excellent homework and example problems I am coming up with in the process of writing this blog!

Side note: While all the above is true and I have been thinking about it for a while, in the interest of complete honesty, I must note that this past week or so my daughter has not been sleeping much at all. I have been completely exhausted and haven’t cared the slightest bit about anything related to Physics…or really anything not related to me sleeping. Sleep and time to think seem to be important for enjoying much of anything.

Introduction

I am a new mother with an amazing and frequently overwhelming little girl. I was also until very recently a Physics professor, but have decided to shift my focus to being a full time mom for a while. This blog is about Physics, and being a mom.

Physics is perceived by many to be an abstract, complicated, mathematical science that has little relevance to the real world. At least, many of my students seemed to feel that way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Physics is the study of the world around us – how we move, how our toaster and coffee maker work, why we see ourselves in a mirror and how rainbows form after it rains. I see Physics in many of the tasks and events of the day, even (or especially) in caring for my daughter.

I want to share the Physics of the every day. Since most of my days right now consist of caring for a small child, this will mostly be Physics related to babies, but may also include Physics in other things I do and people with whom I interact. Or interesting Physics in the news that catches my eye – anything having to do with light and lasers usually catches my eye, because it’s just so cool.

I am also a teacher and very interested in ways to help students learn and become interested in Physics. Raising a child is the ultimate in ‘active learning’ techniques and I plan to spend some time thinking about these ideas to help make me a better teacher when I get back to Physics teaching as well as while I am helping my daughter learn.

I am new to blog writing as well as motherhood. I discover new things about bring a parent every day and need to adapt my plans accordingly. I imagine this blog will reflect that and morph as time goes by.

I plan to write weekly. I hope you enjoy and please share any constructive comments and feedback you have. I am open to suggestions for future topics though it may take me a while to get to them.