Saturday, 29 July 2017

Realistic parenting

Both children are napping at the same time right now. It may only last for 5 minutes, but I relish these scraps of quiet and calm in a way that frightens me a bit. I did consciously choose to have children, and I was even around kids a lot growing up, as the oldest of 5 - but the reality of my ability to parent and my kids’ temperaments is mildly (wildly?) different from what I anticipated. 

Indulge me while I contrast a few scenarios as they played out in my mind’s eye prior to having kids, and then how they actually occur.

Grocery shopping
Jessica’s brain: The little one sits in the seat part of the cart and plays with a wooden, hard-carved rattle lovingly shined with non-toxic fair-trade almond oil. The older one skips happily down the aisles, helpfully selecting healthy and affordable choices with non-wasteful packaging that he places carefully into the cart.

Reality: The little one sits in the cart seat and gnaws on my keys, or a horrible brightly-colored plastic toy, ingesting heavy metals or endocrine disruptors and thus killing braincells or destroying her future reproductive abilities. But at least she isn’t screaming and pulling my hair, so I make a vague attempt to swap a healthier toy into her hand and then give up. How can babies be so strong?
The older one has wedged himself underneath the cart and is busy intermittently dragging his limbs along the ground, causing the cart to swerve unsuspectingly into displays or other carts. Now and then, the entire 4-year old tumbles himself out, halting progress of the cart so that he can grab something off the shelf that will either 
  1. explode upon impact once tossed in the cart, showering fellow shoppers with blueberries, 
  2. has zero nutritional value, 
  3. is very expensive (a $4 bag of walnuts that contains approximately 5 nuts, for instance) and/or 
  4. has approximately 6 layers of plastic encasing a tiny slice of edible material. 
Considering that the older one is somewhat underweight and very picky about food, many of these irritating choices make it home with us in hopes that he will put some meat on his bones.
Hey, kids! I have an awesome idea! Let's walk out into this meadow to enjoy the natural world. Nevermind the fact that 90% of the ground in said meadow is a bog that you will sink into, turning your shoes smelly and wet and brown.
A visit to the beach
Jessica’s brain: Ooh! The weather is lovely! We’ll just pop down to the beach to enjoy some healthy outdoor bonding time as a family. We’ll make a sandcastle and go for a swim and come home relaxed and sun-kissed.

Reality: I throw some relevant beach-articles into a bag with one hand, while the other tries to simultaneously hold a heavy, wiggling baby who cries if I put her down and prevent her from pulling out my hair strand by strand. Meanwhile, the 4-yr old is staging a protest against going outside by lying on the ground where I am trying to walk, and wailing loudly. 
I manage to get the kids, a towel, and possibly some swimwear and/or sunscreen into the car, drive a mile to the beach, and find parking while the kids continue to yell about how they just wanted to sit around and whine about watching TV instead of doing anything fun. I unload them and manage to get them down the 5 flights of stairs to the sand via an exhausting process of coercion mixed with carrying 45 lbs of kids in spurts. I spread out the towel, which I notice is much too small to do much. 
The sun is really blinding and I’ve forgotten an umbrella. I open the bag of junk and pull out two rashguards for the 4-yr old and a bikini bottom for myself. I seem to be missing a bikini top, bottoms for the older child, and anything useful for the baby. I convince the older child that underpants and a rashguard are a fine beach-going outfit, and that he should let his sister wear his spare rashie for sun protection. I slather the rest of their exposed surfaces with sunscreen, feeling quite proud that I managed to bring this key item. 
After we are all set to enjoy our lovely time at the beach, the 4-yr old proclaims that he is hungry. I pull out an array of random unhealthy snacks filled with sand that I left in the bag from last time we were at the beach. Though they were acceptable last time, today they are no good and he wants something else, kicking off a long discussion about the fact that I can’t produce new food from nothing. Sometimes we invent an imaginary snack-producing machine, which distracts him long enough to forget that he hates the available food. Then he invariably asks for sand toys, which I’ve forgotten. I manage to find a half-broken plastic spoon in the bag, and scrounge up some sticks from the beach, but these aren’t really up to par.
I look longingly at the put-together mom lounging on a comfortable chair down the beach, while her properly-dressed children play happily in the sand with their buckets and shovels under a proper shade structure. The next time we go to the beach, I bring an entire wagon filled to bursting with towels, chairs, shovels, umbrella, snacks, water, actual swimwear, and the like. The instant we’ve set up our little home on the beach, the 4-yr old needs to poo. Sigh.
Dressed reasonably for the beach, and eating actual semi-healthy food? Whoever is behind the camera must be a quivering pile of sweat after all of that effort. 
Bonding with my children during sweet, yet flexible evening routines
Jessica’s brain: Well, I don’t want to be tied down to a rigid bedtime routine, because then we won’t be able to just continue living our lives exactly as normal (with the minor addition of two additional opinionated people for whom are responsible). Furthermore, if I do develop any sort of flexible bedtime regime that I may or may not deploy depending on whether it’s convenient for me and my social life, I definitely will make sure it is bursting with love and affection. We will cuddle and laugh, have pleasant baths, don PJs and brush teeth while giggling, snuggle into bed to quietly read books or sing songs, and then obediently lay down with closed eyes to happily drift into sleep.

Reality: Throwing routines to the wind results in horrendously cranky children who completely refuse to sleep and/or do anything other than wilt onto the floor and cry over seemingly nothing. It becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy going out for dinner or to the beach or to a friend’s house to barbecue unless done at an atrociously early time. Our kids turn out to be practically incapable of sleeping in and making up for a late night; instead they turn into wild beasts the following day, draining all of our will to live. 
Even if we opt to stay home and try to keep things early and easy, bedtime is never a walk in the park as I had imagined. Though we do it every. freaking. night, brushing teeth is a battle every time. I can’t even imagine bathing the kids daily; even getting them to allow me to wash their hair twice a week requires patience, fortitude, and a bit of conniving. Often, I can’t even convince the older one to change into PJs, and instead he sleeps in his school clothes, adding to the collection of playground sand in his bed as it spills from his pockets and socks. 
Reading books to the two of them is a challenge. Of course the small one likes very simple picture books; the older one doesn’t mind them particularly except when she requests to read the book about babies eating again. And again. And again. Likewise, the younger one can’t follow along with Harry Potter, so she yells and pulls on our clothing and thrusts picture books into our faces to distract me from continuing it. Even if we wait until the toddler is asleep first to read a chapter book, the older one has trouble sitting still to listen when there are no pictures, so he keeps getting up and building towers out of other books or rummaging around his collection for interesting rocks. I find this incredibly distracting and assume he isn’t listening, so complain to him and ask that he come back and snuggle up to read, so I can have a fleeting few seconds of my vision come to life.

Carving out time to do grown-up stuff
Jessica’s brain: It’s so important not to let life get completely consumed by children. I’m my own person! My health and feelings and relationships matter! The husband and I will most definitely set aside time for regular date nights, and I will regularly exercise and see friends and maintain hobbies like writing my blog.

Reality: I can count on one hand the number of date nights I’ve been on since having kids, and maybe on two hands the number of girls-outings I’ve attended without them in tow. Exercise mainly consists of chasing and carrying small people, which is exhausting but hasn’t exactly resulted in flat abs and bulging biceps. Hobbies are practically a distant memory. Case in point: I started this blog post approximately 11 months ago during a nap, and am just now getting back to it. I also have two partially-finished knitting projects that I started while each of my little ones were incubating in my belly, and neither are even close to being finished. Perhaps they will end up as gifts for my grandchildren. 
Instead, I generally find myself either working, commuting, hanging out with the kids, or cleaning the house and preparing lunches and clothing for the next day before I pass out and do it all over again. 
But I can’t complain - I love that I get to do all of these things, and I assume that one day the kids won’t want to hang out with me after school and I will feel weird an unsure what to do with my free time. Hopefully I can still dust off my old friendships and hobbies and resume these important parts of life. Hopefully they don’t atrophy and die from neglect before that time comes. (Hint, hint: I still love all y’all). In the meantime, I'll just continue to stumble through and thank my lucky stars I have the luxury of worrying about these silly things, rather than how we will pay the rent or buy food or go to the doctor. If the rest of my life consists of the same substance as now, I will die happy.

The little one usually wins when they both want the same thing. If the older one has a shark/crocodile complex as an adult, you'll know why.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

How to clean pennies - a fun kid experiment

This blog post is a joint effort with Ryder, who is now 5. He really likes playing with coins, especially when they are nice and shiny. A favorite activity is therefore cleaning his coins. Pennies are the most fun to clean. He wants to share his ideas about how to clean pennies with other kids, so I thought that a "how to" blog post would fit the bill!

First, assemble cleaning ingredients in small containers. Ryder recommends testing a few different ingredients, to see which work the best. Yesterday, he used these:
1. Ketchup
2. Baking soda and water
3. Vinegar and salt
4. Water and salt
Other ingredients you might want to try, alone or combined with one another or the above:
1. Oil
2. Dish soap
3. Lemon juice
4. Carbonated water
5. Water and sugar
6. Other beverages you have in the fridge; particularly ones your kid convinced you to buy because the packaging looks cool, but which taste disgusting and no one wants.

If you have an old toothbrush, you can use it to rub the ingredients on the pennies, which helps with the cleaning process. It's extra great if the 1 year old then comes in and grabs the old dirty ketchup and salt-covered toothbrush and starts cleaning her teeth.

To make this into an experiment, start with a bunch of pennies of the same level of dirtiness (it helps if they were all made either before or after 1982, when they switched from 95% copper to mostly zinc with copper plating [note that some 2009 pennies are mostly copper]). Try one solution on each penny, and then compare the results. Or, try one solution for different amounts of time on each penny. Take notes about your experimental setup and observations to make it official. Happy penny cleaning!

Friday, 28 October 2016

How to do it all

Hello out there! This poor blog has been quite neglected lately. Work seems to be 99% typing these days, so my writing energy is flagging. But, it’s 8:30 pm on Friday night and the kids are asleep – so here we go!

Life these days is a little hectic. I’m often single-parenting and my job is pretty demanding (many fledgling professors like myself claim 80-hour workweeks. I definitely do not, and could not, physically work that much even without kids, but it is relatively demanding, nonetheless). I’m often flattered and surprised by friends exclaiming things like “wow, look at you doing all of this and keeping your shit together!” The truth is that (1) my shit is about as together as this 
but (2) thank you, and it’s because of a lot of moral support and tricks I’ve stolen from other folks.

Here are some of the most useful tricks I use to semi-successfully parent two small kids while not completely sucking at my career:

  1. When the kids are in bed at night, I do the life-stuff that must be done, like contesting parking tickets, trying to figure out what the fuck excise tax is, and paying the seemingly endless bills. 
  2. I also have started cooking after the kids are in bed. I used to really enjoy cooking (especially when paired with wine and good music) and I do actually want to feed the kids good food, but the idea of getting home from work/school/Boston traffic hell and then cooking while the kids whine about being hungry and claw at my legs is awful. So, I just pull something I made the night before out of the fridge (or the week before out of the freezer, respectively) and zap it in the microwave. Voila! Dinner is ready in a few minutes with minimal effort, yet it's not always just Trader Joes packaged food (as it had been before I figured this out).
  3. My dad gave me a Roomba for my birthday, and…let me just say that if there were a fire and I could only save one thing aside from the children – it would be the Roomba. 
    forts >>orderly houses
  4. Most of my social life these days consists of texting, social media interaction, and commiserating with other parents of small children while the kids destroy one of our houses. 
  5. Ryder often goes to bed in clothes ready for the next day. His school serves breakfast, so as long as he is wearing clothing, I can just get shoes on his feet and get him to school and he will be fed and set for the day. I love the idea of changing into PJs each night and having breakfast at home in the morning together, just like in the cereal commercials. But the reality was that I was spending the 60-90 minutes of our time together in the morning nagging him incessantly to get dressed and/or eat his breakfast so we weren’t late, and we were still invariably rushing every morning. When he sleeps in his clothes, he can spend 45 minutes carefully arranging tiny scraps of paper on his desk, watch a cartoon, and harass his sister before we have to leave. We can be on time and he can eat French toast sticks and other delicacies served by the amazing school cafeteria that I don’t have the energy to prepare.
    A prime example of why my car is a pigsty. But, at least snacks like this keep the small people from mutiny during drives
  6. I shower as infrequently as possible. This saves time, and also makes me virtuous because we are in a drought. 
  7.  I only cloth diaper on the weekends.
  8.  I make the kids do errands with me. This usually requires bribery, often in the form of a sugary treat.
  9. I don’t work when the kids are awake and with me. If they aren’t asleep or at school, I try my hardest to focus on them (with the occasional foray onto Twitter or email when they are occupied and I crave a moment of fleeting virtual connection with other adults). We read books. We go on walks. We look for treasures in cracks in the sidewalk. We visit museums and clean pennies and count blue plastic gems and draw and decorate the porch with fake spiderwebs and go down slides and do all the wonderful things that we should be doing. I remember that I’m the luckiest person alive.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Climate change is depressing. Is there any point?

Yesterday, I got the email below somewhat out of the blue, in response to my writing about how I feel about climate change. I was actually really glad to receive the note, and that I had a chance to respond. In the off-chance that these words might help others feeling the same way out there, I'm posting them here with personal information removed.


Dear Professor Carilli,

So, this is rather weird. I am really sorry about sending you this random email, considering you don't know me, and I am sure have more important things to do [note from Jessica: this is, to me, the definition of really important!]. I just need a little help, and I saw something you wrote on, and I thought...I have no idea. So, I suffer from severe anxiety and depression, and my mind has seriously focused in on climate change. It scares the absolute hell out of me, and it has basically led me to think that there is no point in my being alive anymore. The world is so screwed, there is no point in me sticking around anymore, or possibly having a child who would have to live in such a terrible world. I know this is partially my sickness, but I also feel like there is legit idea. I don't want to die, but the last few days have hurt so terribly, and I am so afraid all the time, I just have trouble finding other options. This morning, I started googling about finding hope in climate change, and I found what you said online, and I guess I just wanted someone to tell me that there is some hope for the future. Because right now, I do not want to see such a miserable future. God, I really did used to be such a happy positive person, but these last few years...they just been really hard.

Thank you for reading my email and listening to my depressing rambling. I hope that you have a wonderful day


Dear [redacted],

Thanks for your email. I’m glad you found what I wrote, and I’m not sure if it was helpful or made you feel worse, but in any case I’m glad that you reached out. While I can’t pretend to know how you feel, I can assure you that you aren’t alone in this sometimes hopeless feeling.

When I was 18, I got a tattoo that says “Never Give Up.” This is a reminder to myself that I often think about in this struggle with “what’s the point, when everything is going to shit?” It helps me remember that although humans can be really destructive and thoughtless, we are also astoundingly clever, and have come up with some really amazing technological solutions for environmental problems. I sometimes flip-flop between thinking that yes, the earth would probably be better off if humans all just kicked the bucket – and then thinking, no: humans are animals, and we have just as much right to live on this earth as other creatures – we just need to use our intellect to live on this planet WITH the other creatures more fairly. I love when I hear about some incredible technological solution that has the potential to improve the lives of humans (particularly the disadvantaged) as well as the environment. Killing ourselves, not having children, or living in caves is just not a good solution for anyone…so if there are ways that we can invent ourselves out of catastrophic climate change, I’m all for it!
I also like to focus on personal choices that make a difference for climate change - like hanging my laundry.
I firmly believe that many small efforts do add up to matter.
There are so many cool examples of major scientific progress and optimism, and this gives me a lot of hope.
Here are a few examples that I like to think about:

Sometimes it seems like it would be good to just abandon ship and give up, but the flip side is that this world needs people like me and you to work hard to make a difference, and to keep shouting about the importance of science and the environment. So I hope you don’t abandon ship, or give up on having kids. I think the world needs more people like us, who care deeply and want to make a difference, and will raise kids who care deeply and will continue making a difference into the future. It’s definitely scary to think that in a few decades, things could be much different from how they are today – and it could be bad. But it could also be better – maybe soon we will make drastic changes to the status quo, and instead of spiraling into disaster, we will rise to the challenge, turn things around, and rise like the Phoenix! What do you think?

Thanks again for reaching out. I hope this helps a little bit.
Also, VOTE!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

How to effortlessly get your 4-year old to accept vaccination shots

Maternity leave has gone by in a blur, seemingly punctuated with continual routine Doctor’s appointments for various family members. We had an awesome time getting the 4-year old’s flu shot, so I wanted to share my amazing story to inspire other parents who may be hesitant about this experience.

First – be sure you talk a lot about the importance of vaccinations with your kid ahead of time. Small children are extremely logical and will totally follow your train of thought and get on board with the plan.

Next – if the flu vaccination is the one that you are aiming to get (perhaps to protect your tiny newborn baby from familial exposure), be assured that kids over 2 years old can get a burst of mist up the nose instead of a shot! Discuss at length with your child how much better this option will be, and how it won’t hurt at all.

At the doctor’s office – be sure to do all the other scheduled doctor-stuff for your visit before the vaccination. This will give ample time for your kid to get worked up into a frenzy of apprehension about being sprayed up the nose with something that is supposed to protect his little sister from invisible bugs.
The 4 year old in his natural habitat. Do not be fooled by their diminutive stature; 4 year olds are very strong and crafty.

Once your kid has gotten all frantic about being sprayed in the nose, ask the doctor to break it to him that you were wrong, and his little sister is actually too young to be exposed to any live (though weakened) virus he might shed after receiving the Flu mist, and therefore he must instead get the (dead) vaccine via shot.

Be sure there is lots of extra time between breaking this news to him and the nurse coming in with the needle. This will provide your kid an opportunity to dispel some of his pent-up fear via screaming at high volume, and/or throwing objects around the room. You will then get the chance to practice your hostage-negotiation skills to try to calm the situation down. This is a good time for lots of lies (delivered loudly over his yelling), for instance: the nurse is a magic fairy and she knows how to give shots with no pain at all. Or: the shot is guaranteed not to hurt because it has magic ingredients and will actually tickle if he is quiet and calm. This may also be a good time to try some bribery (cookies, ice cream, lots of extra TV), and/or threats if you start to get desperate (no TV, immediate nap, etc.). But none of these will work anyway.

Perhaps try interpretive drawing as an explanatory technique when you are appealing to the 4 year olds highly developed logical side before you head to the doctor.

By this point, the baby will almost certainly also be crying hysterically, so you can also practice your remaining-calm-amongst chaos skills, which may come in handy in a future natural disaster scenario.

Once the nurse finally comes in with the shot, don’t bother requesting backup. You are totally strong enough to hold down a writhing, kicking, biting 4-year old while the nurse stabs around with the shot, trying to get it into his arm.

Actually, you are not strong enough. Send the nurse for backup, while you keep cycling between the above lies, bribery, and threats in a vain attempt to get your kid to calm down and accept that he needs to be poked briefly for health’s sake. Also be sure to dodge his flailing arms so he doesn’t punch you in the nose.

Once the cavalry arrives, they will help hold your kid still enough to receive his tiny, 5-second prick in the arm. A short moment of (loud) calm.

Then they will all flee, throwing a few pamphlets and post-visit summaries at you, and you will once again use your chaos-triage skills (let’s be honest, ninja skills) to give the baby her pacifier (again), intercept shoes that are being thrown at your head in mid-air, stuff all the papers and strewn around articles of clothing/toys/etc into your diaper bag, dodge punches your incensed kid is exhaustedly attempting to lay on you, then pick up the angry 4 year old in one arm and use the other to awkwardly push the stroller while opening the door with your foot and get the hell out of there as fast as possible before your kid sets off all the other kids in the office.

You will be operating on 99% adrenaline and 1% leftover morning coffee at this point, but you will soon collapse. Hopefully your kid wears out first, or realizes that you have left the doctor and he didn’t even feel any actual pain anyway, so he will let up on the yelling and kicking. In a few minutes, he will just act like his normal self, while your body goes into recovery mode from that trauma. The baby will hopefully have fallen asleep by this time as well. Perhaps by now you are all sitting quietly in the car, or on a bench waiting for the bus or looking at the calming fountain outside the doctor’s office. Wherever it is, just try to be sitting before you go into collapsing-mode.

Now suggest and then head directly towards whatever food/beverage item you feel will revive you – coffee (well, perhaps suggest a hot chocolate to the kid), milkshake, ice cream, etc. Chat normally with your kid, as if nothing just happened. Perhaps ask him if he arm hurts, just for kicks (because he will say “no” as if you just asked some obvious question like what his name was). Sigh and pat yourself on the back. Perhaps think of a different strategy for next time, like surprise shots when they least expect it (while eating ice cream!? Is this why Rite Aid offers shots?!!). Or just push it to the back of your mind until next year.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

How to make important conferences suck for young families

Next summer, the big once-every-four-years coral reef conference, ICRS, will take place in Honolulu, Hawaii. With poor timing on my part, I suppose, I’ll have a breastfeeding infant along with me – just like last time. And again, like the 2012 ICRS, the 2016 ICRS intends to provide no help organizing childcare.

This is, in my opinion, ridiculous.

The 2012 ICRS conference was full of babies. They were crawling around the presentation rooms, bouncing on hips during the poster sessions, and squawking during the lunches. There were babies everywhere distracting their parents from fully participating in the conference because there were no offered childcare arrangements.

I complained then, I complained after the conference, and I am almost certain other parents complained, yet the upcoming 2016 ICRS provides only the following:

They will get you in touch with other parents who would like childcare.

Oh, WOW! That is SO AWESOME. Now we can all commiserate on how freaking difficult it is to organize short-term childcare in a city you know nothing about.

You know what would be more awesome? If the conference organizers recognized that on-site childcare is SUPER HELPFUL (always, but especially) during conferences. And then provided it.
Mommy, this presentation is horrible! They have no error bars! Waaaaaaaah!!!

Here are the main reasons on-site childcare is helpful (to me – there may be others):

1.     Reduces the stress level of the parents if they can
a.     Check on their kids easily and often. Particularly helpful when they have had 0 time to vet the childcare providers ahead of time.
b.     Be fetched easily if there is a problem with their child.
c.     Not have to arrange their own independent childcare, which always requires significant time and worry.
d.     Not be forced to just bring their kids along to sessions, which is not really very fun for anyone.
2.     Allows mothers to breastfeed more easily
3.     Is likely more affordable than hiring a nanny or babysitter for the week
4.     Is likely more affordable than flying a relative over to the conference to help babysit
5.     Affordability is particularly important to support early career scientists, single parents, and attendees from the developing world

So, conferences should provide childcare. This would significantly improve the ability of parents (of young kids especially) to participate. Look, Forbes agrees with me! And Science Mag pointed out that no conference childcare is a barrier to entry back in 2003.

There are even companies that specialize in conference childcare!

Other conferences provide childcare, like Fall AGU, Ocean Sciences, Society for Marine Mammalogy, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, etc. So, ICRS needs to get with the program.
Babies may not be helpful at the ICRS conference itself, but they are good at testing fossil corals for chewability post-conference

Ok, let's say there is some really good reason they can't provide on-site childcare. What are some other things they could do? 

1.     In the very, very least, they could do some of the legwork and call around to some local childcare places to find out if they take kids short-term. When I visited University of Queensland for a week, I was able to find a week-long slot for my kid at a nearby center*. Even if they don't want to do the calling around, they could compile a list of contact phone numbers.
2.     They could find some contacts for local childcare agencies and publish these on the website. 
3.     They could offer a room at the conference for families to use as a temporary daycare facility on site. This way we could either work out ways to trade off watching kids, or hire a nanny to watch the kids on site. This would be more expensive and more work for us than on-site childcare, of course, but would provide some of the on-site benefits I mentioned above.

Can you think of other ways that conference organizers could make things better for people who must bring their kids along?

*The center turned out to be terrible, unfortunately, so I pulled my kid out after 2 days and he came with me to the lab. Sigh.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Humans are pretty cool: 2015 Science Hack Day San Francisco

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to attend the 2015 Science Hack Day in San Francisco. At first I honestly thought that the invitation had been sent to me accidentally (because I have imposter syndrome like everyone else), but once the organizer Ariel Waldman followed up, I happily accepted. A big reason I decided to go was the location: I grew up in the Bay Area, and the bulk of my family and my in-laws are scattered around the region. This meant that I could bring the little ones along (R, 4 years old and A, 3 months), and the grandparents could help take care of them while I was busy science-ing.

As the date approached, I became a bit more nervous than anticipated. My role, as I understood, was: (1) to give a quick talk about coral reefs and in doing so help spark ideas for people to work on during the weekend, and (2) to bring a particular perspective and expertise to the arena that might be useful and (3) to observe and report on the event. The concept of Science Hack Day was still a little muddy to me, though I watched the explanatory video and read some blog posts previous Science Ambassadors had written. In these, it was explained that teams of people would form organically to chose and work on a topic for 24 hours, and then present the results of this “hack” to the entire Hack Day crowd when the time was up.

My lingering worries fell into two camps: (1) sciency-types, myself included, are not legendary for smooth social skills; how will we form groups spontaneously if we are too shy to interact? and (2) how will people decide what to work on, and how will they physically do so? I had also invited my dad to join me at the event as a participant. He designs new and refurbished labs for researchers at Stanford, has patented several inventions, designed and built multiple houses, and is to me the epitome of someone who can come up with clever solutions to problems. He also articulated another worry as we read through rough ideas that participants entered into a shared Google doc ahead of the event: (3) what if all of this potentially amazing collective energy and expertise is wasted on trivial projects?

The Friday before the event, the other ambassadors, the event organizers, and I met for lunch at the waterfront in San Francisco. My mom entertained my littles nearby while I enjoyed interesting and uninterrupted discussions about science with other grownups, and got to eat with both hands. Thrilling! 

Giving my talk in the Oval Office. I love to gesticulate.
On Saturday morning, I left my 4 year old again with my mom, and headed back to The City (as Bay Area folk call San Francisco). Science Hack Day was hosted at the headquarters of GitHub. The space was, to put it mildly, amazing. If you could take all of the coolest things you could think of – a DJ booth, full bar, catering kitchen, pool and foosball tables, a replica of the Oval Office, etc. – and put them all into one architecturally beautiful building, this would be it. Oh, also throw in an on-site daycare to be even more awesome. I don’t even fully understand what GitHub is, but the building made me want to work there.

The first hour of the morning consisted of enjoying breakfast at large wooden tables reminiscent of movie versions of Oktoberfest. Participants donned decorated name-tags and began meeting one another during this time, exploring the work area and gadgets that were on hand. A small CNC milling machine and two 3D printers were staged on one table, along with a collection of powertools and electronics equipment for making circuits and the like. A lot of people were already typing away on computers at the tables, or scattered around on beanbags and swiveling captain’s chairs.

Next, the organizers kicked things off with some opening remarks. Some of this spoke directly to my fears: we shouldn’t worry if it takes us a while to find a team, and the lab-coated organizers could help if we were feeling like a fish out of water and didn’t know how or where to join in. They also explained that nine upcoming lightning talks – in three concurrent sessions around the space – would be followed by time devoted to anyone who wanted to do so making a 42-second pitch for their Hack Day project. Both of these points calmed my fears a bit, but I still wondered how things would actually fall into place.

My lightning talk followed an audio-visually stunning and content-rich talk by a planetary astronomer, Alex Parker, who had a knack for explaining his science in a straightforward and digestible manner (and who was also super nice). I was both totally impressed and happy to learn from his talk, while also terrified about having to go up next. My talk was decidedly less visually arresting and, I worried, perhaps both too simple and too overwhelming. I explained what corals are, the main things that make them unhappy (hot water due to climate change that causes coral bleaching, overfishing, and polluted runoff), and ended with some quick ideas for “hacks” that I thought might be possible and rewarding to work on during the weekend*. Originally, I had planned to just put baby A in a carrier and give the talk with her, but my dad offered to hold her instead – helpful as she decided to throw a fit a few minutes into the presentation.

I didn’t feel confident enough to try to lead a group towards a particular hack, so didn’t pitch a specific idea. Instead, I listened and then cruised around for the first part of the day to see what kinds of projects got started. Indeed, though my initial worries were centered on how people would find groups and decide on projects, it did seem to work out. I should have probably realized that if groups of organisms like ants can end up with coordinated behaviors, then surely humans can, even if only due to emergence.

After a while, I found and joined a group that aimed to make a game to teach kids about human threats to coral reefs; perfect! But, we took quite some time to actually decide on how the game should work and to then make it – in fact, by the time I left that night to get A and myself off to bed at a hotel nearby, we had very few solid ideas of how the game would work.
Our game prototype.
Our group didn’t work through the night like some others did; we had good sleeps and a relatively leisurely breakfast back at GitHub, then realized we really needed to step it up as we only had a few hours left to complete our hack, and had nothing yet to show. We quickly started brainstorming and making decisions on what direction to follow, and who should work on what tasks. We managed to complete the game and even had time to do a run-through, and it seemed to work. Our game, which we called iSea Life, was a cooperative, timed game with the goal to build a coral reef that had more colorful (healthy) pieces than white (bleached or dead) pieces. Some of my teammates are continuing to revise the game, and the final version will eventually be up here, so check it out!

At 1 pm on Sunday, everyone finished hacking and gathered to see presentations of everyone’s projects. First, Heather from GitHub gave a nice speech where she showed that although some of the projects that people have worked on during previous Science Hack Days may have at the time seemed trivial, some of them led to real and useful solutions to problems. Indeed, jiving off of other people and applying their thoughts to another problem is a great way to come up with new ideas. Case in point: I came up with my PhD research project by chance during coffee with a friend. Although Science Hack Day could be perhaps used to bring folks together to solve pre-determined “real” problems facing the world, in many ways the design seems perfect for stimulating creativity in a sort of random-walk approach. Even if the presented projects don’t immediately seem useful, maybe they can be further refined in the future or applied to known problems.

Since I’m an environmentalist, the projects I liked the best were those that had some obvious application towards environmental problems. These included “smogify,” a filter to make photos visually reflect the air quality at the time and place they were taken; an extension to Google maps to quantify the carbon footprint of various transit modes on calculated routes; and an application that would redirect someone from a dubious website to a trusted source after they searched for something “sciency” like “climate change.”

In the end, I really enjoyed my time at Science Hack Day and found it to be a highly rewarding experience that I will think back on often.
Another cool hack: a bias-meter for news articles.


*Here is a brief rundown of my ideas for coral-reef hacks, most of which were not exactly feasible to work on in such a limited time and space (GitHub being rather dry, after all):

Three biggest problems for corals:
1.     Climate Change à causes coral bleaching and increases disease susceptibility
a.     Suck greenhouse gases out of atmosphere (this was not actually a suggested hack, but something that needs to be figured out)
b.     Improved suctioning device to combat black band disease (one of a large number of coral diseases, this would perhaps not have a large impact but is somewhat manageable)
c.     Shading devices
d.     How to mix up deep, cool water
e.     More zooplankton?
f.      Genetic engineering?
g.     Map potential poleward expansion?
2.     Overfishing à one consequence is algal overgrowth
a.     Underwater chicken tractor, to enclose herbivorous fish and get them to clean off macroalgae on a particular part of the reef?
3.     Polluted runoff à many causes and consequences
a.     Minimalist sewage treatment
b.     Runoff reduction ideas
c.     Water cleanup?