Posts tagged STEM

STEM: Create Your Own Career Path

CareerPathIt’s been a busy couple of weeks at my house. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think the biggest thing going on at home has been that my son started kindergarten last week (does that make me old?!?), and my daughter started at a new preschool. As such, there has been much discussion at home about how grown up STEMboy is, and what he thinks the future holds.

If you ask him what he wants to be, his answer alternates almost daily, between:

  1. Paleontologist
  2. Artist

Obviously, LOL. Two professions I would never compare with each other – but the boy loves art projects, and the boy loves dinosaurs. For awhile, his favorite show was Dinosaur Train.

We were driving to visit a relative the other day, and STEMboy wanted to play a guessing game (a common occurrence in our family).

STEMboy: “Mom, I’m thinking of an island. Guess which one!”

Me: “uhhhhhh…..Mackinac Island?”

STEMboy: “No”

Me: “Hawaii?”

STEMboy: “No”

Me: “Seriously?!? I have to guess any island in the whole world? I need a hint.”

STEMboy: “It’s really old.”

Me: (jaw drops to the floor. I know immediately what he’s thinking, but can’t believe he knows what he’s thinking) “Uhhhhh….Pangea?”

STEMboy: “YES!!! That’s it!!! How did you know that, mom?!?”

Me: (over my husband’s laughter) “I’m a scientist, STEMboy. How do YOU know that?!? Do you know what Pangea is?”

STEMboy: “Of course mom – It’s the island that all the land used to be in a long time ago. It was on Dinosaur Train”

Which of course led to the discussion of how continents shifted, and why that’s relevant to finding dinosaur bones.

Ahhh……moments like this send my heart aflutter. I love seeing my four year old independently learning about science (even if it is from TV), and sharing his love of science with us and others. If he grows up to be a paleontologist, I already know that he will genuinely love his job. If he grows up to be an artist, I’m sure he’ll love that too and of course I’ll support him in that endeavor as well. I can’t wait to see what he will become, but as a parent, my biggest concern is that whatever he does make him happy.

Aside from dinosaurs, is there a STEM-related message in here?

Wait for it….

Wait for it….

It’s coming – but another story first….For now, just remember that STEMboy changes his mind daily about what he wants to be when he grows up.


Another reason for all the recent commotion in my house is that my husband, Mr.SciGuy left his job in automotive engineering back in the spring to pursue a new career. The summer has been full of licensing exams, training trips, and adjusting to a completely different schedule for SciGuy.

So what led to the change, and why?

If you haven’t already read all my previous posts, automotive engineering is a very lucrative career. It has great pay, good benefits, and job stability.


It’s also a very high-stress job. The timelines are tight, and a single mistake can cost thousands, millions, or even billions of dollars. SciGuy was in a job where every day, he had to call and yell at people, make threats, and try to fix emergencies he didn’t cause.

Ugh – can you imagine? It’s an important job, but it wears on you.

Over time, SciGuy came to realize that this wasn’t the job he wanted to do the rest of his life. He wanted to be having positive interactions with people every day. He wanted to make peoples’ days better, not worse, and he wanted to make a difference in the community where we live.

After a lot (seriously, a LOT) of research, thinking, and planning, he decided to pursue a dream that’s been rolling around in his head for over a decade. SciGuy submitted his resignation to his high-paying automotive job to pursue a new career in financial advising at Edward Jones.

A lot of family and friends seemed to be completely baffled by the change at first, but it makes perfect sense to me.

SciGuy has always loved money and money management (if you know him, ask about his famous amortization Excel worksheets or the cost of money over time), working with people one-on-one, and helping others.

As a kid, one of his nicknames was “Alex P Keaton”. (If you are young and missed the magic of 1980’s television, I’m sorry for your loss).

Lastly, he has an incredibly strong math and research background thanks to his engineering degree (foreshadowing: can you see where we’re going here??). While he had no direct experience working in finance, the transition so far has been incredibly smooth because he understands that math, and has a lot of experience in learning to learn challenging concepts.


So how does this apply to you?


If you think you know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but aren’t 110% sure, the versatility of a STEM degree can ensure your success, whether you stay in your planned career path, or not. A STEM degree gives you so many options and so many resources. You can go anywhere, and you can do anything.

Even if you decide ten years into your career that you want to do something completely different than what you’ve always done, a STEM background can make the transition simple and quick (and now I can say for sure to trust me and SciGuy on that!).

That’s HUGE – I can’t emphasize enough how important it is. A lot can change over the course of a decade or even over the time it takes to get your degree. As you gain more educational experience, work experience, and life experience, you’ll better appreciate what you want, what you don’t want, and what really makes you happy. In the big picture, being happy is what matters.

You can find a career that works perfectly for you, or you can write your own job description. Having a job that you find fulfilling will make waking up and going to work every day tolerable – even fun! With a STEM education, you can do anything, chase any dream, and create your own path in life!

Where do you think your path will take you?


Am I really going to need this when I grow up?

Grow UpFor some of you, the first day of school has already arrived, while others are going back in the next week or two. As you get back into the routine of waking up early, going to class, and (ugh!) homework, you may be thinking about the meaning and importance of everything you’re doing.

When you grow up, will you ever need to figure out how much force is needed to push a car up a hill if the coefficient of friction is 0.8? Will you need to know the 12 cranial nerves and what they do, or how to titrate an unknown acid, or how to use calculus to find the volume of a solid object?


Maybe not.

I use a lot more STEM skills in my job than I ever expected to as a student, but I’m also a scientist for a living. Even still, I would never consider doing many things I learned as a student by hand.

Doing math the old-school way

Doing math the old-school way

If I need to calculate an integral, I can do it on a computer. If I need to check an anatomy concept, I can look it up in a book, and if I want to move a car up a hill, I generally either step on the gas if the car is running, or call a tow truck if it’s not (right? You know what I’m saying here!). If I needed to titrate an unknown acid, I suppose I would have to do that by hand, but honestly, how often does one come across unknown acids?

Doing math the new-school way

Doing math the new-school way

I know if you’re a student, you totally feel me on that, but let’s take a step back and look at the overall principal instead.

Part of the importance of school work is to make sure you understand the underlying big concepts. You don’t necessarily need to do the math or the science every time, but once you have done the work yourself once or twice, there’s a lot better chance that you comprehend the basic theory behind the concept.

That way, when we know it’s easier to push something up a slippery hill than a rough hill, and that a cube has a bigger volume than a sphere of the same width, and that adding a base to a solid makes it more neutral, we can explain at least a little bit of the ‘why’ that goes along with the answer.

In STEM, there’s even a little bit more to school and learning than just the big concepts.

Part of school is learning HOW to learn.

Chances are, you’ll go into your first job (and second job, and third job, and so on), and you’ll need to learn a lot of things they never taught you in school. If you’re a student, trust me on this. If you’re a professional, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement.

For instance, if you move to Detroit and work for one of the big 3 automakers (that’s GM, Ford or Fiat-Chrysler for you out-of-towners), you might start out working on transmissions. You’ll need to learn about gear ratios, material properties of metal, linkages, and how to assemble all the parts. No college degree program will teach you all the intricacies of the job without you getting some hands-on experience. But don’t worry – if you have a STEM degree, you’re used to working hard, studying, and using your analytical thinking skills to solve problems.

If you work really hard, and become a walking encyclopedia of transmissions, you might get a promotion to managing a team that does exhaust design. In exhausts, there are a million new things to learn. You need to understand the chemistry of volatile gases coming out of the engine, how they combust, and how the exhaust system removes the chemicals so the car isn’t polluting the air. Plus, another function of exhausts is to quiet the sound of the engine, so you’ll need to learn some basic acoustic concepts as well. By now, you’re probably also doing a little bit of work of planning the production in a remote factory, and trying to optimize the costs as well. And you’re managing a team as well. Good thing you did lots of team work in your STEM education!

Go you - lead that team!

Go you – lead that team!

Luckily, if you have a STEM degree, you’ll have a basic understanding of many of the foundational principals you’ll need to use in the job, and by now, you have YEARS of experience at quickly learning new material. Your STEM background makes you pretty much the best employee ever (but we knew that would happen anyway, right?!?).

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The details of all the work you’re doing may be tedious, and we each have an area (or two) that we find to be even more tedious or more challenging than the rest of the curriculum. But, all that hard work does have a purpose.

Doing all that work in detail ensures you understand the fundamentals of “why”, and it teaches you how to learn. So, grab a water or a coffee, sit down at your desk, and get to work. Do those integrals. Memorize your flash cards, and look forward to those lab experiments. Read your textbooks, and ask lots of questions. Put your heart and soul into learning the fundamentals, and learning how to learn, and you’ll be giving yourself the best possible foundation for a successful career.

Have a great school year!


STEM News: Ice Cream


Ice cream is an integral part of my life, especially in the summer time. It’s practically it’s own food group – there’s protein, grains, fruits/veggies, and ice cream.


I eat it more than I should, but not as much as I want. Sometimes, in an effort to be a little more healthy, I substitute Greek yogurt for ice cream. It’s almost as good (or so I tell myself), and a bit more healthy.

So I was talking about that on Twitter the other night (ice cream is THAT important in my life!), and it was brought to my attention that some areas of the United States are experiencing an ice cream shortage due to a recall. I vaguely remembered hearing about a recall a while back, but had no idea it was still affecting ice cream consumers. Sounds horrible!!

Being the ice cream connoisseur I am, I thought this would be the perfect news story for us to talk about from a STEM angle.

Here’s a great infographic from the CDC that describes the outbreak. Check it out. People got sick from a type of bacteria called Listeria that was found in Blue Bell ice cream.

Want to know what floors me the most?

Only 10 people in the entire United States (1 in Arizona, 5 in Kansas, 1 in Oklahoma, and 3 in Texas) were confirmed to be hospitalized over a period of five years, but that was enough for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to isolate the source of the contamination.

That’s incredible!

Think about how many people get sick across the country every day, every year, or every 5 years. To keep track of all those sicknesses and identify a trend from just 10 people blows my mind. Of course, there may have been more cases that weren’t linked, but still, that’s incredible!

Researchers who find these kinds of medical trends are called epidemiologists. Want to know how they found the problem in this case?

Scientists used genetic testing to look at the entire DNA sequence of the listeria of the people who were sick, and compared it to the entire DNA sequence of bacteria found in different Blue Bell ice cream samples. Most of the cases in this outbreak were actually linked to ice cream that people ate while already in the hospital. Talk about horrible luck!

The Blue Bell production sites had been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during the period that contaminated ice cream was being produced, but Listeria was not found during the inspection. There were other health violations, but I assume most factories have minor violations in routine inspections. I don’t know how major or minor the violations were in this case.

I’m certainly not an expert, but it seems like Blue Bell took the right steps throughout the investigation of the outbreak by voluntarily recalling different products as soon as they were linked to the outbreak. Eventually, they ended up shutting down their manufacturing facilities completely, leading to a major ice cream shortage in areas of the south. I feel for you, my friends, especially now that we’re in the thick of the summer heat!

Since genetically different version of Listeria were found in the different manufacturing facilities, and Listeria was not found during the routine FDA inspections, I’m not sure what the actual source of the contamination was, and whether each factory had the same contamination problems.

As I was doing a little more research for this article, I came across some really fantastic breaking news. Blue Bell is going to be back in stores at the end of this month. You heard it here first, folks!! (or it may have come from this news article, too). I hope by summer’s end, you’ll all have access to all the cold, creamy, delicious ice cream you could possibly imagine.

So, my friends, let’s get to the fun (for me) part! The CDC and various States’ Departments of Health did an incredible job identifying the bacteria and tracing it to the source before too many people got hurt. Where else can we apply STEM toward solving this ice cream problem?

One of the first things that comes to me is by developing improved monitoring systems. (Why? Because this is an area I’ve worked at in my own job, of course!) Ice cream begins its life as a liquid. Is there a way to somehow continuously filter that liquid to isolate and/or test for bacteria? Bacteria have basic genetic and chemical difference from dairy byproducts that would make them pretty easy to tell from ice cream product, assuming you could clearly identify bacteria even at very low contamination levels.

That could work for plain chocolate, vanilla, or even superman, but what about the chunky ice creams? What if you have chocolate chips, cookie dough, brownies, sprinkes, or some other goodness in the ice cream? What if there’s a contaminant in the solid chunk? How could we identify that? Would it be better to grind up all the solid parts into tiny pieces and analyze the powder that’s left, or is it better to test the ice cream in its more natural, chunky form? I don’t know! That’s a big problem to think about.

The next thing that comes to my mind is how the company cleaned their manufacturing line enough to be absolutely sure there will be no further contamination. Usually, when I work with bacteria or other biological things, the most common methods of sterilizing are bleach, UV light, or a high-pressure/high temperature cleaning using a machine called an autoclave.

In the case of making food meant for human consumption, I prefer bleach not be involved in the process – but that may be how the machines are cleaned. I imagine most of the machinery is far too big to be put into a high pressure chamber, and there may be parts within the machines where UV light won’t reach. In that case, I assume some other form of chemical cleaners are used to kill the bacteria, but I don’t know for sure. Wouldn’t it be great if we had some young STEM lady or gentleman to improve the cleaning and sterilization processes within the factory, so that safe, non-toxic, inexpensive cleaning methods can be used?

Lastly, as I think about all my friends who’ve been deprived of a summer of ice cream, I think about supply chain management – how can we quickly and efficiently get the product back out to as many consumers as possible? Which types of ice cream should phased-in first, in what order should manufacturing lines be brought back on-line, and where should the newly-made, safe ice cream be shipped first?

There are so many questions, and so many great ways we can use STEM to improve ice cream accessibility and safety. I think I’m going to grab myself an ice cream, and think about how I can get myself a job in one of the ‘coolest’ industries I can think of! Let me know how you’d use STEM to improve the ice cream industry!




Love Travel? Try STEM!

STEMtravelHave you guys missed me? I’ve missed you lots, but I’ve had an amazing few weeks, months even! I know it’s pretty counter to the social media dogma, but I tried to shut off my phone, and live in the moment as much as possible.  But now, I’m back, and ready to talk STEM again.  I’ll try to share some of the highlights of my travels with you in detail over the next several weeks, but first let’s talk about why STEM may be an awesome career choice if you’re like me and love to travel.

First, a benefit of most STEM jobs is that they usually come with great benefits packages, including lots of vacation time. You’ll probably also have a pretty good salary, which means you’ll have some spare money to use over your vacation time. In June, I went to Cedar Point with family to run a half marathon with my sister-in-law. It was my first half-marathon, which I was pretty excited about.

Pretty out of gas after a 13.1 mile Sunday morning jog - and getting geared up for rollercoasters!

Pretty out of gas after a 13.1 mile Sunday morning jog – and getting geared up for rollercoasters!

In July, we went on a family vacation with my parents and sisters to go to Tennessee. I blogged about the week in Tennessee here. It was really fun to spend the whole week with my kids adventuring, exploring, and experimenting!  The lake we visit in Tennessee was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority back in the great depression by damming a river.  Much like the Hoover dam, this helped with flooding issues in the area as well as providing a renewable energy source.  The views on the lake are absolutely stunning!

With a view like this, you'd turn your phone off too!

With a view like this, you’d turn your phone off too!

Mr SciGuy and I just returned from Traverse City, MI with his family. If you’re not from the great state of Michigan, maybe you haven’t heard of it, but it’s a fantastic place to visit. If you think of the lower peninsula of Michigan like a mitten, Traverse City would be situated just about on the fingernail of your ring finger.

We took a ride on the biggest catamaran on the Great Lakes - we love the NautiCat!

We took a ride on the biggest catamaran on the Great Lakes – we love the NautiCat!

It has 2 big bays that connect to Lake Michigan, and there’s lots of outdoor things to do, and also a big cherry and wine industry on the peninsulas around the bay.

The view across one of the bays, just before a BIG storm rolled in

The view across one of the bays, just before a BIG storm rolled in

Vacationing is an obvious way to get travel in, but there’s also opportunity to travel for your job in STEM, too! For example, Mr. SciGuy spent a week in St Louis, MO for job training. I also got the opportunity to go on a quick trip to Toronto, Canada last month for business meetings. I spent a full work day in (really awesome, inspiring, educational, and fun) business meetings, but got to spend the evening I was there downtown. We went to an Iron Chef’s restaurant (Lee, by Susur Le) which was fantastic, walked through downtown, and spent some time on the hotel roof, which had an incredible view of the Toronto skyline. I wish I could’ve squeezed in a trip to the CN Tower, but didn’t have time on this trip, because I had to fly home and re-pack my bags to go on another trip! Guess I’ll have to go back to Toronto again soon!

Love the Toronto skyline!

Love the Toronto skyline!

Now, let’s talk about my favorite method of work travel. If you go into academic research, scientific conferences are I’ll devote an entire blog post on another day to why conferences are so awesome. To summarize, though, conferences are a way to share your work with others, see the current research in your field from all the scientific leaders, and to get the opportunity to meet leaders in the field and develop new collaborations. A bonus? They’re usually held in pretty cool places.

Previously, I’ve been to local conferences around Michigan, and travelled to Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and Puerto Rico. This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Budapest, Hungary for a conference on lipid research. Budapest was amazing! I spent workdays working at the conference and listening to seminars, but we had nights, plus the day before and the day after the conference to see the city. Our hotel was right at the end of the Chain Bridge, one of the most famous sights in the city. Originally, Buda was split into two cities: Buda, and Pest. When the two cities merged to Budapest, the Chain Bridge was the first bridge to join the two cities. Now, there are several more bridges throughout the city, but the Chain Bridge is the most famous.  The picture at the top of the blog is of the lions guarding the Chain Bridge.

The view from our hotel roof - the architecture in Budapest was phenomenal!

The view from our hotel roof, with the Academy of Science across the park – the architecture in Budapest was phenomenal!

The conference was held in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, another very famous site in the city, and we were within walking distance of Hungarian Parliament, the Academy of Art, a cathedral, and several marketplaces. Plus, if you follow me on Twitter (@theSTEMinista), you might already know I got to go to dinner in a castle – I lived my own personal fairytale for a night! Later in the week, I toured the underground dungeon/labyrinth attached to the castle, where Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) was imprisoned – if you like haunted houses and scary movies, this labyrinth is something you have to see!

I ate dinner at a castle - it was amazing!!  What a princess moment!

I ate dinner at a castle – it was amazing!! What a princess moment!

Did I mention the science at the conference was really good, too?  I learned a ton, met great people, and might have a couple future collaborations up my sleeve as well.

So, to summarize, my STEM career allowed me to travel my heart out this summer: to Cedar Point, Tennessee, Traverse City, Toronto, Budapest, and home with my kids while my husband went to St. Louis. What a whirlwind! I loved the travel, but I’m pretty excited to be back home, and getting back into my normal routine. If travel is a goal you aspire to, STEM is one of the best ways to achieve that goal – take it from me!

As I get back into my routine, and enjoy the last, precious few weeks of summer, I’m looking forward to talking more about STEM with you and gearing up for the 2015-2016 school year!


TBT: Viewing a Space Shuttle Launch

The beauty of the vapor trail of the shuttle launch was amplified by the sunset

The beauty of the vapor trail of the shuttle launch was amplified by the sunset

Note: this post has been edited (changes are in italics) and may be edited again as we get more great information about space shuttle launches

Friends, I took a longer absence than planned, and I apologize. Today, we’re throw-back Thursday-ing to talk about a space shuttle launch I saw in 2009.  How did that come up, you ask?  Let me explain…

Last night, I posted to Twitter about how the Northern Lights are visible further south than usual because of a solar storm. If you haven’t seen them, the northern lights are astonishingly beautiful – they almost look magical. I have great memories as a teenager of going on trips to northern Michigan with friends, and laying on a dock to watch the stars and northern lights.

I peeked outside a couple times last night to look for myself, but didn’t have any luck spotting them. Too bad for me! Guess I’ll have to make a trip up north sometime soon to get my northern lights fix.

Anyway, I digress.

@FLBeach_MG and I struck up conversation about the northern lights which then led to talking about what he does – space shuttle launches!! What a great job – really, really cool #STEM, with the side bonus of working in really, really nice places.  No northern lights, but usually no snow, either!

John shared some videos of space shuttle launches, which reminded me about the time I went to a space shuttle launch (more about that in a minute). Turns out, we were at the same launch: STS-119!  One of the last launches of the space shuttle Discovery.

John dug up this really cool video that shows not only what a bystander sees when they go to a launch, but also what you can hear over the radio, while showing a timed graph of the altitude, metrics, and clues about different phases of the launch process including a picture of the shuttle showing its orientation.

It’s a longer video, but very informative if you (like me) aren’t familiar with shuttle launches. There’s a lot that happens after 3…2…1… A couple minutes after liftoff, the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) come off. These provide the primary thrust in the first two minutes. They are super heavy (2.6 million pounds) but provide 13,800 kN of thrust – wow!

I was surprised to see on John’s video that there’s actually a descent about 5 and a half minutes after liftoff. A maximum height is reached, and then the goal changes to building speed. During this phase, the shuttle rolls over to what we think of as an upright position. (John asked astronaut Nicole Scott why, the shuttle was head-down before TRDS, and reports her response “We’re pilots.  We like the horizon”.  Makes sense, right?) It goes through a downhill slide of several miles in altitude drop, and then starts to gain altitude again to go into orbit. Less than 8 and a half minutes after liftoff, the main engines cut off, and the external tank is released (John and other space experts out there, please correct me if I’m mistaken, or over simplifying!).

Thanks to John, we can see that after only about 8minutes and 30 seconds, the shuttle accelerates from rest to a speed of more than 16,900 miles per hour, and an altitutude of 65.3 miles. Also, the space shuttle is nearly 800 miles away (down-range) from where it started in Cape Canaveral. That’s an average of about 94 miles – per minute!! Too bad we can’t all get around that quickly!

Here’s another narrated video John shared which shows up-close vantage points of the features pointed out in John’s video.  One thing that stood out to me is how much show there was when the SRBs come off, versus a relatively peaceful release of the external tank.  The external tank was a little more like hippos doing ballet in Fantasia (at least to me).  Also interesting to me, which is pointed out in the video, is that there is a several minute window after liftoff where the shuttle can be averted and return to Earth should anything go wrong.  I always thought there was no going back once you’re in the air, but if the shuttle can land on a runway on return, why not return to runway in the case of an aborted mission?  Again – makes sense! For much more detailed information, check out NASA’s website. They have tons of great resources available for readers at all experience levels.

Even though it’s not my area of expertise, I’ve always had a fascination with space shuttles. They’re just plain cool, right? Mr. SciGuy is an even bigger space lover than me, though. In 2009 before we went on a vacation to Florida, he brought up that he was bummed because we were just missing a shuttle launch, and he’d always wanted to see a shuttle launch.  And Discovery was nearing retirement, so opportunities to see it were dwindling.

Bummer, right?

Actually, not so much.

Turns out the launch faced delay after delay. First, the mission team delayed the launch to examine (and then replace) the hydrogen flow control valves that send hydrogen from the fuel tank to the engine. Then, the launch was delayed because of a hydrogen vent line was leaking. If I remember correctly, the launch was then rescheduled to March 15 based on the weather conditions– this was a day we were scheduled to be in Florida, with no other plans (except now to go see a space shuttle launch).

nasa1So, we packed some bottles of water and our camera and drove from Tampa (on the west coast of the state) to Cape Canaveral (on the east coast). The launch was in.cred.ible. It was more intense than I imagined. The general public can’t actually get anywhere near a shuttle launch. We went to a beach in Titusville, ~10 miles away from the ACTUAL launch. At first, I was a little bummed. 10 miles away – could you even see something from 10 miles away? Let me tell you. Yes.


The light of launch, from 10 miles away was staggering. The noise? Even more intense, but the sound travels slower than the light. For a second, you think, “wow, that’s really bright.  too bad we can’t be closer”. Then, there’s a rumbling like nothing else you’ve ever felt, and you think “oh – now I understand why we shouldn’t be any closer”. You can feel in completely to the core. It’s really cool.  And then things really get moving.

<<Side note: after posting, John sent this video too, which shows damage to brick walls at the launch site following launch.  First, seeing people and work trucks in the area gives a great sense of scale about just how big a space shuttle and it’s launch gear is.  The damage to the wall itself may not seem super impressive – just some missing bricks, right?  Until about 2 minutes into the video, when you can see just how far the brick debris was thrown from the launch site.  There’s a reason they keep the general public miles away!  Good thing we did kinematics in my last post, because projectile bricks would be another really fun physics problem.>>

Beautiful reflections in the vapor cloud

Beautiful reflections in the vapor cloud

It’s amazing to watch the shuttle slowly leave the ground, and head toward space. Then, too soon, it’s gone from sight, but there’s a veil of excitement still in the air. And, in the case of this launch, there was a killer reflection of the sunset off the vapor trail. Even the launch director called it the most beautiful launch he’d ever seen. I’m clearly an amateur photographer, but I’ve included some of my favorite pictures from the night in the post to try to convey the beauty.

edit: After originally posting this, John sent

Big questions lay in the sky - literally and figuratively

Big questions lay in the sky – literally and figuratively

Did you notice this one, where the vapor trail looks like question marks? It was windy, and the wind blew the vapor trail into a really cool pattern. I’ve used it in a number of presentations during Q&A segments. Turns out John and his team did some calculations based on the time of flight, and altitude at each time (see the video), and determined the big question marks in the sky were at about 16,000 ft altitude.  How many of you readers are thinking in your head that it would be amazing to spend a couple days in John’s shoes?

Have you been to a space shuttle or other launch experience?   What was it like for you? If not, how do you envision the future of space shuttles? Do you think they’ll still be a rare occasion worthy of a special trip, or do you think eventually they’ll be as routine as watching airplanes take off at a busy airport?

–the STEMinista

Cool STEM – roller coasters!

roller coastersWhen they were kids, my husband, Mr. SciGuy and his sister had season passes to Cedar Point. They practically grew up there, and they have countless stories about riding the roller coasters, playing in the arcades, and generally making mischief throughout the park.

Every year, SciGuy asks me if I want to go to Cedar point with him, but until last year, it never worked out. We had other vacations planned, or visited other amusement parks, or I was pregnant and couldn’t ride roller coasters.

Finally last October, we took our first family trip to Cedar Point. We had so much more fun than I expected, even bringing along two little kids. I thought it might be boring bringing to bring them to an amusement park, but I had more fun than I imagined watching them on the little kiddie rides.

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

This year, my sister-in-law and I signed up to run a half marathon at Cedar Point, so we had another opportunity to spend the weekend there. Being such a roller coaster enthusiast, SciGuy told me I just had to talk to you gals and guys about roller coaster engineering. I bet you could already guess that there aren’t a ton of roller coaster jobs out there – but there are some. It seems like the companies making the MOST popular big roller coasters are Intamin and Bolliger & Mabillard. There are numerous smaller companies out there as well.

Are you interested in roller coaster engineering? If so, most of all, you need to be really dedicated and passionate about it – there aren’t a lot of jobs out there, so there is stiff competition. Do what you can to learn everything about roller coasters, and get involved in professional organizations or clubs, such as the American Coaster Enthusiasts to learn more about the field, and meet industry professionals. There are a couple of universities which offer specific courses on roller coaster design, including Purdue, Ohio State, and North Carolina State University.

Want to hear about our trip, and some of the roller coasters we rode?

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

Our tickets included early access to the park an hour before it opened, so we had the opportunity to check out all the big roller coasters before it was open to the general public. It was so fun! We rode the Millennium Force first. It has been around for years now, but it is still consistently rated as one of the best roller coasters in the world.

Next, we rode Rougarou, which is the old Mantis rollercoaster, with a different floorless configuration. Then, we rode the Iron Dragon, an older steel roller coaster built in 1987 which is pretty tame in comparison to today’s roller coasters.

Then we walked back to try out the Maverick, which none of us had been on before. The Maverick was intense! It uses linear accelerator motors to propel the car up the first hill, then you go down the hill at a 95° angle. That’s crazy! The original design of the roller coaster had to be modified after it was built, because one of the turns was so intense that it put too much strain on the roller coaster car.

When he finished on the maverick we went to the Gemini, an old wooden coaster with steel tracks. After riding on the steel roller coasters, the Gemini felt almost as rough as being in the dinghy in a hurricane. But it was nice to get a historic ride in while we were at the park.

Riding the Gemini kind of turned me off from roller coasters for the rest of the day but the SciGuy and his sister still wanted more. They hopped in line for the Top Thrill Dragster as the last ride we had time for in the morning. If you haven’t heard about this roller coaster, you should look it up.

It’s classified as a strata roller coaster which means it goes more than 400 feet up in the air and then 400 feet straight back down. It uses a hydraulic system to push the car up to speeds of 120 miles an hour to accelerate over the hill. At the time it was built it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. The whole ride only takes 17 seconds but it is a really fun. Below, I put in a video of SciGuy and his sister riding it. If you haven’t seen it before, you can kind of get an idea of just what kind of roller coaster of talking about.

The hydraulic system on the Dragster can be very sensitive to environmental conditions, such as wind, rain, and humidity. Sometimes, this results in a train being accelerated up the track, but not making it over the crest. In this case, retractable braking fins catch and stop the car as it heads back to the starting gate. If you’re one of the lucky people that happens to, you get a bonus ride to get you over the hill. When the ride first opened, I remember seeing this happen several times, perhaps as the ride operators were really getting to know the nuances of the system. It doesn’t seem to happen as much now, but I don’t know if it’s because the kinks are worked out of the system now, or because they close the ride in bad weather conditions.

SciGuy did some more research, and found that there have been THREE times in the history of the ride where the car has gotten stuck right on the exact crest of the track. Can you even imagine that? Enough energy to get you to the top of the hill, but not enough energy to push you all the way over. When this has happened, they’ve had a mechanic climb to the top of the ride (>400 feet!!), who manually pushes the car over the hill. I wonder which way it gets pushed – if it’s back toward start, or toward the ending?   Can you imagine being on the ride for that experience? It’s like the ride of a lifetime!

Have you taken physics 1 yet? Where you study kinematics? This is like a dream introductory physics problem. If the train car must go a distance of 420 ft (128 m), and the only force acting on the train is gravity (9.8 m/s2), what starting speed do we need (assuming speed at height of 420 feet is zero). Using the formula v2 = vo2 + 2ax we calculate a speed at the bottom of the hill of 50 m/s, or 112 mph.

This is pretty close to the reported speed of 120 mph (53.6 m/s). We can then figure out how fast the train needs to accelerate from the starting gate to go from a starting velocity of 0 to the a velocity of 53.6 m/s, over a time of 3.8 s (thank you Wikipedia!). If we assume a constant acceleration (hydraulic launch systems are pretty constant), then we get an acceleration of 14.1 m/s2. Dividing by 9.8 m/s2, we can see that the average acceleration is ~1.44 G’s.

For those of you who’ve taken more physics courses, we can start adding in all the other variables that we ignore in the simplified kinematic model to make our modeled calculations fit better with the actual data. We can look at losses due to friction, weight distribution within the car, losses going around a 90° angle from horizontal to vertical and in rotating around the vertical axis, and losses due to wind speed and humidity, and other factors. How fun! I wish I had more information about the system so we could do more math!

What’s your favorite roller coaster? Have you ever done the physics to see what you’re experiencing?


Thoughts on #distractinglysexy

distractinglysexyTonight, I wanted to share with you some advice about what one should do when dining with a Nobel prize winner, but this Tim Hunt #distractinglysexy thing came up. I posted on Twitter that I had a few reservations about the #distractinglysexy hashtag, and some people seemed a bit aghast – I thought I’d explain my point of view a little more – we’ll get back to dinner parties another night:

Most of us that are living in the current millenium agree that the statements made by Dr. Hunt are just plain wrong. STEM needs insights from all types of people, everybody has important input to give, and there are too many problems left to solve for leaving anybody out. We need all the brainpower we can get.

Is the problem that Tim Hunt doesn’t respect women in STEM? Is the problem that some men don’t respect women in STEM?

If so, does posting pictures of women on Twitter change Tim Hunt’s mind? Does it change any chauvinist man’s mind? Will we all wake up tomorrow in a STEM world without sexism or racism? We’re certainly bringing a lot of attention to the problem, but does #distractinglysexy actually solve a problem?

@niais posted a downright tirade about her feelings (warning: graphic language). To me, her comments were much clearer about explaining the problem(s) than any #distractinglysexy picture.

Perhaps instead #distractinglysexy will begin an open and honest conversation. Then, we can provide some data about the status of women in STEM, what areas need the most attention, and where we’ve already succeeded. @EmicAcademic does fantastic work on this, and @AAUW took the opportunity to begin posting all sorts of statistics and articles about Women in STEM – I believe THIS is the conversation we need to be having!

@D_avidH today pointed out the importance of understanding the problem and brainstorming solutions in STEM. I think the same thing applies here.  Everyone had something different to say about #distractingly sexy:

@CatholicSara said that #distractinglysexy is meant to make women laugh

@Bailiuchan suggested that satire can be a powerful agent of change

@coralnerd suggested this was an avenue of self expression for women in STEM

@dawnbazely suggested (not to me) that #distractinglysexy moved beyond Tim Hunt, and became a movement about women empowering themselves

First, thanks to each of you for your input and conversation – I think you all have completely valid points, and I learned a lot by considering your viewpoints. This is a situation where you are all right, and for the same reasons, I support #distractinglysexy if it:

  • Empowers anybody – man or woman – to pursue STEM.
  • Shows young people the diversity and exciting avenues of STEM careers
  • Encourages women and men in STEM to feel comfortable in their personal version of self-expression
  • Celebrates the accomplishments of women and men in STEM
  • Forms a support network of people in STEM to converse and share ideas with

Those things are incredibly important, and desperately needed. But personally, I have reservations about building such an empowering, uplifting movement if its very foundation is based upon tearing someone down. Even if that someone is wrong. Isn’t marginalizing someone else’s self expression the very thing we’re trying to prevent?

Instead, why don’t we create a movement based purely on positive foundations? Empower women and men in STEM every day – not just on days when some chauvinist makes a highly publicized sexist comment. For example@StephEvz43 has a great weekly video series on STEM and @Realscientists features different scientists on their website on a weekly basis with fantastic week-long outreach by each scientist. A couple weeks ago on my blog, I wrote a post about how I use STEM in my every day job. It was full of pictures that would be perfect for #distractinglysexy (before #distractinglysexy was cool). I didn’t write it as a one-time reaction to a rude comment. I wrote it because sharing my STEM experience could positively influence someone else.

We shouldn’t just be highlighting STEM when something negative happens. We should be celebrating STEM every day – celebrating little victories like passing a test or finishing an experiment, celebrating big victories like graduating, getting jobs, paper acceptances, patents, and discoveries. Instead of reactionary hashtags like #distractinglysexy, I’d rather celebrate and empower with constant positivity, such as #thankyouSTEMwomen, #scienceFTW, #heforshe, #heforSWE and @smrtgrls. I hope that opening a positive avenue of empowerment would

  1. Provide an environment of mentorship, camaraderie, encouragement which allows everyone to feel safe in their own form of self-expression
  2. open discussion to determine the problems, brainstorm possible answers and implement solutions, and
  3. develop a workforce of successful, empowered, educated STEM professionals

What do you think about the debate? Are there any key points of the discussion I’ve left out? I’d love to hear your opinion – the conversation is started – let’s keep it going


Is THIS what I want to do the rest of my life?

Is this what I want to do the rest of my lifeIf you’re one of those people who’s known since third grade what you want to be when you grow up, you suck! (just kidding, of course – good for you!!) I’d say most of us go through high school, and even a lot of college before we even begin to understand what exactly we want to do when we grow up.

Even if you know you want to be in a STEM job, there are so many different directions you can go. How do you know that where you start is where you want to finish?

You don’t.

And that’s ok. Even if you go in to college absolutely sure of your career path, it’s not unheard of to change your mind. I changed majors entirely between my master’s and PhD. Mr. SciGuy is changing his profession entirely 10 years into his career. It’s all about finding something you really want to do the rest of your life.

So if you’re just starting out, how do you know if you’re doing the right thing?

My best advice for you is to get as much experience in your field as you possibly can – hands-on if possible. You can get experience from lots of places.

The absolute best way to gain experience in your hopeful job field is through a co-op job or internship. With a co-op job, you’ll get to go into the workplace and see what people in your field really do on a day-to-day basis. The job you’re doing will likely be entry-level and more mundane than what an experienced employee would do, but on-the-job experience is so informative. You’ll have access to speak to all the other employees at your company, who can give you their perspectives and advice and see first-hand what the best and worst parts of the job are, what the benefits and pay are like, and what the expectations are for employees in different roles.

An added bonus, if you decided you DO like the job, is you’ll have your foot in the door at a company in the industry you like, PLUS, when you interview for your full-time position, you can talk about your relevant work experience.

After being on the job, if you decide you DON’T like it, you still have time to change up your career goals while you’re still in school, instead of getting all the way to your first real job and realizing you made a huge mistake.

Jobs were tight in the early 2010’s, but from what I’ve heard (at least in the automotive industry), companies can’t find enough co-op students to fill the positions available now. I heard at one job fair in March of 2015, companies were hiring co-op students to fill positions as far in the future as summer 2016. The jobs are there for you, you just have to go out and look for them (more on that in future posts!).

If for whatever reason, you can’t do a co-op, there are still opportunities to get experience. Try joining a club or professional organization in your field. You’ll have the opportunity to interact and share experiences with other students in your field, and possibly get the opportunity for mentorship from professional members of the club or organization. The other members of your club will quickly become your study group, your support network, and likely some of your best friends.

Networking is another good option to learn about your job. Talk to your teachers, professors, parents, and friends about your career goals. Chances are, they may be able to offer you good advice, or put you in contact with someone who can give you great advice. This could even lead to potential job shadowing or internship opportunities down the road. On-line networking through Linked-In can also be a great opportunity to find people in your desired profession (but remember to keep your profile professional!).

So, be brave, get out there, and start trying things. THAT Is the way you’ll figure out what the best fit is for you. If you find that the first job, or two jobs, or three jobs, or more – aren’t perfect for you, don’t worry. It takes time to find your perfect job, but you’ll get there. It just takes some trial and error, and the willingness to try new things.

So, tell me – do you think you already know what your dream job is? If not, do you know what direction you might want to go in?


STEM news – The World Needs Your Energy and Your Light (really!)

stemnews 051915

STEM friends, this has been such an amazing week! I asked you guys to share and like me on facebook, and the response was UN-BE-LIEVABLE!! Thank you all so much, and welcome to the site! I also had some great twitter convos last night that will have their own separate post – to my new Twitter friends, I’m so glad to have ‘met’ all of you too! You rock!

I was thinking about what kind of news story would be good for this week, and picked three headlines that sounded interesting to me. My reasoning is shown in parentheses:

  1. Apocalyptic skies return above Chile after second volcano erupts” (so sensationalized – who could resist?! What does an apocalyptic sky look like, anyway?)
  2. Dallas-area quakes are likely due to fault lines, geologist says” (fault lines seem like obvious cause, but Dallas isn’t known for earthquakes)
  3. One in seven people still live without electricity” (no way – that can’t possibly be right. this is why we need people to pursue STEM)

I just couldn’t pick, so I consulted Mr. SciGuy. I had to drag him away from watching The Weather Channel to get his opinion– he thinks tornados are fascinating! I read him the headlines I picked, and he said “power is obviously the most important thing to talk about”. So, there we have it – tonight we talk about power.

This story fits perfectly with what we talked about on Monday. Those of us who are blessed to live in the developed world can’t imagine going a night without our smart phones, let alone lights and running water. There are lots of us who think it’s a big problem and want to solve it, and I know many people who actively work in the energy industry.

What if you went to a town without power, though? What if you took someone from that town, and gave someone the education and resources they need to develop an energy infrastructure? I would bet 99% of people, given the opportunity, would work tirelessly to bring power to their friends and family.

Being personally invested in something makes you work so much harder. Everyone has their own interests, causes, and passions. For every interest, cause and passion, there are accompanying problems that need to be solved. Thus, we circle back to the point from Monday that we need people from all walks of life to bring their passions together to solve big problems.

Whew, we haven’t even gotten past the headline yet….lets continue.

According to the article, the United Nations developed an initiative called Sustainable Energy 4 All in 2011. One of its aims is to provide access to ‘modern’ energy services worldwide by 2011. We’ll just focus on that part for now.

In the past 5 years, global electrification increased by 2% to 85%, and energy access was provided to 100 million people. That’s incredible. Last year, about 20 million people who had never had power got access to it. For comparison, the population of the entire state of Florida is about 20 million. India made the biggest progress – go India!!

Let’s stop and do the math though. 1.2 billion people were without power, and 0.1 billion people (1/12) got the power they needed in the first 5 years of the initiative. Assuming we keep moving at the same pace (I assume we won’t, but for simplicity sake), it will take 60 years to finish. That’s not until 2070 – we’re missing the 2030 deadline! The banking powers that be suggested ‘we’ as a global economy may need to invest as much as $1.2 trillion annually to meet the 2030 goal. We’re going to need some of you economists and mathematicians to figure out how on Earth we’re going to pay for that.

Another major problem the story points out is the type and reliability of energy infrastructure being developed. A lot of infrastructure is being developed for urban centers, but it isn’t always reliable. The lines are there to run high power, but there isn’t enough power to go around. In Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, most people spend nights in the dark, even though the grid runs to 90% of the population. Engineers and physicists, this is a problem for you. How do we efficiently, inexpensively save up energy during the day to distribute at night – in the third world?

Rural areas have their own issues, too. It doesn’t make sense to run power infrastructure to extremely remote locations. For those places, portable renewable energy from sources like solar, wind, and water flow make more sense. Physicists and engineers, inventers and entrepreneurs – I hope you haven’t checked out. We need you on the case here to develop energy options that are inexpensive, durable (it is in the third world!)long-lasting, and reliable. That’s a lot of features to check off your design list!

Want to learn about a couple energy options in development? I was pretty curious myself, so I googled for you. The first story I got back was a 2012 National Geographic article, which talks about some cool energy developments.

Ten years ago, putting solar panels on a house with capability to light 3 rooms cost $1500. Today, portable solar lamps are available for just $2-3 each and can rugged versions with phonce chargers can be purchased for less than $50. Think about how many more people $1500 impacts at $3 / light!

An even cheaper option (for sunny days) is to build ‘windows’ into the roofs of homes using pop bottles filled with water and bleach. This idea was developed at MIT, but the idea may be based on designs of a Brazilian mechanic (someone looking to solve a problem he was passionate about!)

Many of the companies doing the work in this field aren’t just focused on the bottom line. They’re also focused on truly improving the lives of their customers. It’s totally inspiring that these people are using their STEM intellect to make a huge difference in the lives of others – literally bringing them light!

Have a great day today, my friends, and stay inspired! (and if you want to know about earthquakes or volcanos, let me know!)


Can I succeed in STEM if I don’t fit the stereotype?

stem success

In one word: yes

In one sentence: You are capable of more than you could even imagine, and the world needs your ideas and input to conquer and solve some of its most difficult questions.


If you’re in a hurry, you can stop there. I wanted to make sure everyone who clicked here had the chance to see that, even if you don’t have time to read a whole blog post.

Have another couple minutes? There’s more:

Every one of you reading this is capable of succeeding in STEM.

What does it take to succeed in STEM?

A curiosity to ask science, engineering, technology, and math questions, and the interest to look for the answers.

That’s it.

Your gender, your skin color, your income, and anything else about you? Doesn’t matter.

YOU have the innate ability to succeed.

I admit – there may be difficulties along the way. You may be the only ___A____ in a room full of ___B___. Fill in the blanks for whatever applies to you. For me, I was very frequently the only _girl_ in a room full of _boys_.

Do you know what though? Every other ___B___ in the classroom with you will have their own struggles in their path through STEM as well. A lot of times, the people getting under your skin the most are the ones facing the biggest personal struggles in their own lives.

If you’re doubting yourself because you aren’t like the others around you, or because you aren’t like the people you envision in your future job, don’t let that stop you. You are more like them than you imagine (unless you’re half fish). You have goals and dreams and aspirations, and a unique perspective that makes you who you are.

When you go to work in a STEM job, you are bringing that perspective with you, not just your classroom knowledge. You have an entire collective of your own experiences, and your own approach to thinking and problem solving based on both your personality and your past. To employers, this is an asset. You are unique and valuable, regardless of being ___A____ , or even better – you are unique and valuable because you are ___A____.

Most days, being an _ (girl)__ in a room full of _ (boys)__ wasn’t a big deal for me. We were all students, and we all had good days and bad days. Some days, it was challenging to be different from everyone else. There have been a few rare really bad days where I’ve let someone nasty get under my skin. To be honest, days like that suck. A lot. Those days are very few and far between. My response is to pick myself up, move on, and to become a better STEMinista – just to prove that nasty person wrong.

There are two people I can think of in the past who have told me I couldn’t succeed in STEM because I’m a _girl_. Want to know something cool? Those two people, who made me feel absolutely horrible in the past are the whole reason I started going to talk to young people about pursuing STEM. I took that negative energy, and turned it around to bring about what I hope will be positive change. Not only did I work all the more harder to prove that I could succeed, but I’ve made it a point to make sure that all of you know that YOU can succeed too.

So, maybe you’re different. Maybe you don’t fit the stereotype. That isn’t bad. That just makes it all the more special when you pursue STEM, and you DO reach your goals. I love telling you this, and I’ll tell you over and over and over again:

YOU can succeed in STEM. YOU have what it takes, and I believe in YOU.

Happy Monday, and go kick some STEM butt this week!




P.S. My feelings about this subject are really strong. I am not kidding when I say I believe in YOU.   We will come back to this point – over, and over and over. I could stay up all night talking to you about why I think people who don’t fit the stereotype are ideal for STEM careers. To those of you who do fit the stereotype – I could write all night about why you fit perfectly into STEM, too. To spare you a 4000 page post, we’ll come back to this later – many times. But know that I believe in you and you can succeed in STEM.

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