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Thoughts on STEM education, sustainable business, female engineers, etc. 

Feeling Like an Imposter and 3 Ways to Move Past It

I am not a good programmer. My brain doesn't think in loops. Despite taking courses in college, completing homework assignments, and trying supplemental learning through code academy - I've never reached a point where I can easily write code. As a result - I dread it. Obviously, it's more fun to do what you're good at all the time. But as an engineer you can't avoid programming forever and for the past 6 months it has been the elephant in the [my] room. Some days I have victories and feel awesome; other days, like yesterday - I spend the entire day trying to make something work and it doesn't. Then (truthfully) I usually lose my shit at someone in my life - my parents, my boyfriend, or any of my lovely friends. 

Because the engineering world so highly values strong technical skillsets, having programming not be your thing can be defeating. It makes you feel like you don't have a place in the discipline sometimes. I'm great at asking the right questions; but I wish I was better at finding the answers. While the PhD has given me a lot of opportunity to engage with things I am good at and enjoy [design, systems mapping, tech for dev, impact assessment, etc...] it's also made me jump through a bunch of technical hoops that haven't been fun for me. I get the argument that I'm better as a result however that still doesn't replace the fact that the process is discouraging. Anyways, when I'm feeling like an imposter and that I have no idea what I'm doing here are 3 ways I work around it: 

1. Take a walk: This is the most immediate. When I am sitting at my computer and cannot figure out either what I'm doing wrong or what I should do next I go outside and take a walk. I remember when I was deciding between MIT and Berkeley I had the thought, "At MIT I see myself being stressed out and cold." Turns out -- I was totally right. The PhD process is incredibly stressful. I never take for granted the ability to walk outside at Berkeley, enjoy the sunshine and see a view of the bay. It lets me clear my mind, refreshes my motivation, and ultimately reminds me there's a lot more to life than programming. 

2. Remind myself I don't have to be good at everything: No one is good at everything. No one. When I'm feeling frazzled I take a second to remind myself what my strengths are and why they're valuable for engineering. I'm great at (and love) framing questions, building a storyline around scientific research, and helping others do those things as well. That's where I see my career heading. I'm never going to be a data scientist. And that is okay. 

3. Ask for help: The best part at being at a top university? There are a ton of smart people around. The other day I was feeling stupid but finally got frustrated enough to ask for help. The first person I asked -- who is a rockstar programmer -- didn't know how to help me because it was more of a math question than a coding one. While I wished that he would've had all the answers it served as a nice reminder that this stuff is HARD. harder than I give myself credit for. That gave me the courage to ask a second person for help which was incredibly beneficial for my work. 

 

5 Things Academics Should Do More Often

I feel like these days, whenever you ask someone how they are, the response you get is either "stressed!" or "busy!" This is particularly true when you hang out with academics at public universities, where staff positions are getting cut left and right, everyone is fighting to do something new or different to attract funding, and the possibilities for projects is endless. As my PhD is ending I've been thinking about how I've spent the past 4 years and what I've learned. Here are 5 things I'm glad I've done or wish I'd done more of while in academia that I think other academics should do as well! 

1. Go to talks in other departments: This is my number one. There are so many reasons why this is a great idea. I knowwww it takes time. Time that could be spent a million other ways but often departments have lunch time talks with free food so you can both gain knowledge and eat. There is always more work to be done. In academia you have the luxury to have so many opportunities and encouragement to learn from others in diverse spaces -- and everyone (particularly students!) should take advantage. I say other departments specifically because one thing I've realized is that often other departments are talking about the same issues but from different perspectives (e.g. talking about water access issues in the political science dept or higher education in the sociology department.) The natural reaction might be "but they don't know ______ as well as _____ does!!!" check your ego at the door - every discipline as something to offer and who knows you may just get a dose of inspiration for your own work. 

2. Think about the problems you're solving: Following my own advice, I went to a graduate seminar offered by the Chemistry department a few weeks back. The faculty speaking runs a lab and someone asked her how she chooses what to work on or what new projects students are given. She said something along the lines of, "Once a semester we sit down and brainstorm about the problems in our field and think about what others aren't working on. Then as a group we map out what some initial steps would be to check if the idea is worth pursuing." so simple. so brilliant. In my own lab and many of my friends' labs as well, every time a new graduate student joined the group the faculty member seemed surprised and flustered at the need to find them a project. which. is. crazy. because it happens all the time. Establishing a routine to generate new ideas and think about what the steps could be a way to have a list of projects at the ready when a grad or undergrad wants to join the group. 

3. Take on big challenges: Last year, I took an introductory environmental engineering course (during my 3rd year as a Civil Engineering Grad student.. but that's another story). On the last day, the professor -- who is one of my all-time favorites -- mapped out the big challenges facing the field of environmental challenges: global water access, climate change resilience, curbing industrial emissions, the list goes on and on. And then.. he said he had spent his entire career on none of these and instead focused on a much smaller problem. To me, to have great impact you  have to work on great problems. This is beautifully articulated by Richard Hamming in his talk titled, "You and Your Research." In it he covers why it's so critical to tackle big problems and how to go about finding them. You need brains, drive, and persistence; you also require courage

It’s that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.
— Richard Hamming

4. Say no: Because everyone is stretch thin, people constantly ask you to do things for them. And for the most part, you have to say yes. That's the nature of academia; it's a community and you help others out. You, however, do not have to say yes to everything. It's fine to say, "I have too much on my plate right now could this wait a week or two?" Or, "I'm don't have the bandwidth to commit to that right now." This is critical else you'll find your entire schedule filled up with things that don't get you anywhere and don't advance your own agenda. This past Fall I was incredibly busy and still not making significant progress on my dissertation. My advisor told me to say no to anybody that asked to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays and use those days to work on my dissertation. Simple yet game-changing for my productivity. 

5. Write and communicate: I have always said that if you want to become a leader in your field, learn to write and speak well. In engineering, it definitely helps if you're a rockstar coder; I don't deny that. You can't get anywhere though if you can't advocate for your own work. And you can't make a name for yourself in the broader world if you can't communicate in multiple ways (i.e. anything besides an academic publication.) There's a researcher on campus who advises the president, is a leader of the IPCC, meets with CEOs of companies -- and receives a slew of criticism that his science is not great. My response? Stop complaining and start showing [through TED Talks, op-eds, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc.] why yours is the way to go. That's how you get a seat at the table. You can't wait for the world to read the article you published in a top-journal two years ago. Tell them why they need to read it now.

Reimagining Global Public Health: Workshop Series

Particularly in this time of global chaos, everyone is feeling like they need to be doing something. Something to make a difference, something to be engaged in their community, something that matters. Along with collaborators from the School of Public Health, this week Sara Beckman (my advisor) and I launched the first workshop in a series aimed at engaging students from across campus in real-world issues. The workshop series has several objectives:

  1. Engage more people in critical in public health issues 
  2. Teach students concrete tools they can use when working on complex problems 
  3. Start a conversation on campus that can lead to ideas + action

The session on Wednesday night focused on thinking through the implications of the global gag rule. If you're unfamiliar with the policy that's also known as the 'Mexico Policy', it restricts federal funding from going to organizations that provide abortions or even offer advice around abortion as a reproductive health service. We posed the following central question: 

How might we provide safe and comprehensive access to healthcare for mothers globally?

Despite a rainy and cold Berkeley night, over 40 people showed up including undergraduates, faculty, medical and graduate students, and Bay Area community members. We went through using a web of abstraction to better understand the broader context the challenge sits within. We further introduced the concept of systems mapping as a mechanism to explore problem spaces. The resources used all are posted on our *new* and *branded* website: reimaginingx.com! I pulled it together super quickly, so while it could look better - it's at least there.

So what happened? People left talking and thinking. They didn't come up with any solutions that will transform the landscape of reproductive healthcare but that wasn't the expectation. Individuals with like interests met, exchanged ideas, made plans for follow up conversations, and learned a skill. To me that seems like a success in two hours. It wasn't without critique. A faculty member stated that to actually start working on the problems described you need to contextualize the problem and get specific about where and what you are discussing. To which Sara responded, "Exactly!" It's our hope that events like this show faculty members how desperately students want to contribute to something "Real" and engage in work on important on impactful problems. We're kind of figuring out where this will go as it happens - and have had the thought "Hrmm it'd be better if this happened in the fall because there could be continuity to a Spring class.." However, after the session a student came up and said she wants to start a DeCal (student-run course at Berkeley) on Maternal and Child Health in the Fall and is looking for challenges to work on -- the workshop content could certainly lead to problem frames for them.

So this is a start. A start of a multidisciplinary conversations and experiments around problems that matter. Excited to see where it goes from here! 

4 Insights on Students Engaging with SDG 5: Gender Equality and Empowering Women

Over the course of the Fall semester, Chloe Gregori - rock star Berkeley undergrad - and I set out to explore how the Blum Center was engaging with gender issues and how we could amplify about gender dynamics. We conducted interviews with 15 students including a mix of men and women, undergrads and graduate students. This work was motived by the Sustainable Development Goals and their call to understand the gendered implications of all development issues. As we learned from the Women's March, there are no gender-neutral issues. Issues such as food security, climate change, and water access impact men and women differently. If we want to create a truly inclusive society, it's critical that we recognize such differences and begin to address them. 

Read the full article on the Blum Center website here! The introduction is below:

  Mashavu Health Workers, 2014

Mashavu Health Workers, 2014

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a prioritized agenda for global change by 2030, with objectives such as the elimination of poverty and an end to world hunger. The SDGs present an integrative approach to development by addressing intersectional linkages of poverty that lead to global inequality. The fifth SDG entitled “Gender Equality” is a strong example of this cross-cutting new approach. SDG 5 measures gender equality along nine broad dimensions including increasing access to education for girls, ending gender discrimination, eliminating sexual violence, addressing unpaid work, and increasing female political participation.

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#TheFutureisFemale

The past week has been an emotional rollercoaster. On Friday (the day of the inauguration), I was lucky enough to go see the wonderful Roxane Gay speak in Santa Cruz. After a candid talk about white women's voting records, Pmurt's rise, and unapologetically embracing yourself, she graciously signed copies of her new book. Mine now says,

Rachel,
Be Difficult. 
- Roxane

Short. Sharp. It's a sentiment that is critical today. We, as women, and every U.S. citizen, need to work proactively to shape our individual future as well as the future of our country. The new administration is taking swift actions to severely restrict access to reproductive care (the effects of such policies already seen in Texas), ignoring the existence of science, and many other actions to reaffirm that the government is working on behalf of wealthy, white, men and few others. We have to fight for ourselves. I donated and made calls in support of Hillary Clinton and clearly it wasn't enough. If nothing else, this election has woken up a generation to the need for political involvement. The start of it was the Women's March on Saturday. I purposefully say start. The reaction from WOC to the shock held by democratic white women when Pmurt was elected has really resonated with me. The common reaction was, "Oh this is the first time you've been intensely let down by you government? Welcome." That sentiment has made me recognize my privilege and reinforced the need for me to step up. Thankfully I'm not alone and have been able to start having tough conversations about race, gender, etc, with friends, family, and neighbors. I'm also learning from the example of my cousin Kate, @GoKateShoot, who is using her platform to highlight powerful women and draw attention to the work that needs to be done over the next 4 years. 

Right now, I feel incredibly lucky about the fact that I work for a female boss. I was interviewed for a podcast last week and when asked, "Who's brain would you like to get inside and really know?" I said my boss. The interviewer cast off my response saying I was a suck up but it's true. She's brilliant and having never worked for a female before (and never even had much of a chance to in engineering) I want to soak up every second of the experience. I'm not taking it for granted. 

Despite the daily onslaught of negative news, I'm inspired by the #FutureIsFemale movement because of the camaraderie amongst women I've experienced over the past few months in particular. I recently had the opportunity to work with a female editor who was critical and yet supportive - a working style I hadn't seen much of before. It made me realize how important it is for women to not necessarily "Act like men" and in order to lean in but instead to embrace the traits that make us different and show how valuable they an be. 

Finally I'm (trying) to be hopeful because I know that to create change there needs to be a movement. In my circles - both in California and in Pennsylvania - I see that happening. I think the time is right for women to step up and step in to positions of leadership, though that leadership may look vastly different than traditional forms. In large part, because women can embrace the notion that community comes before competition. I'll explore more on this in a future post.

There's a lot of work to be done. Maybe I'm naive; I think our labor can result in a freer, fairer, and friendlier world for all people. And selfishly, I hope my future daughter won't get texts from her best friend (as I did yesterday) saying that her boss doesn't know her name so he instead calls her sweetie. Because there's no room for that in this day and age.