Academic nomads: the wander days

I am feeling a particular sense of dislocation today and hence this post. I have written previously about life as an academic nomad (and in other posts) and today I  write about the more frequent, smaller nomadic elements: the extended research visits and trips.

In June I set off to Germany to visit HTW Berlin and then attend the CLEO Europe (and was the only female teaching a short course! why such a poor gender ratio?) conference. I spent almost 2 weeks away… and snuck in a sneak weekend to London. Yay!

We often don’t count the many smaller business trips we make for conferences or research visits as elements of a nomadic existence. Yet they really are. Some cities feel like home and others make you want to run off bag and baggage as soon as you arrive. Each trip has the inevitable hassle of travel, jetlag, luggage, suitcase full of unwashed clothes, strange beds… and different seasons, lovely food, meeting old friends and possibilities to make new ones.. At times I miss the comfort of my own home, my things and friends so fiercely when away that I can’t wait to get on that flight back. And at times the time away is a great holiday from the routine of everyday.

I classified these shorter visits/cities based on my how much my nomad heart felt at home and explain my criteria:

I want to pitch a tent here: these are the best of the best and I want to return to these places. Cities with character and contrasts: where there is a pulse of life and vibrancy, people bustling about yet there are calm spots too. I love Berlin for that reason: the city has quiet, clean and green suburban areas where you can live in peace and these abut jostling, gritty crowded spots. The history of East Berlin and the wall juxtaposed with hip festivals such as the Fete la Musique. The vegan capital of Europe and also home to probably the grottiest, sorriest airport (Tegel) ever! I’ve found that it always helps to live as much like a local as possible (aka not in a hotel) as possible to allow yourself to discover and fall in love with a city. These cities feel like they will make space for you and will graciously allow you to make a home here. Bangkok is another such megalopolis that I adore.

Hotel California: cities where the hotel is my oasis and I only venture out for work. Evenings and free time is spent holed up in my hotel room. Not that the city is terrible, I just cant engage with it: If it is too clean, orderly and mechanical almost sterile and lacking in that quirky human spark. Munich sometimes feels that way to me (apart from the Weissbeer). Or if it is totally outside my abilities to deal with: too unsafe to venture out, or impossible to travel via public transport (Los Angeles), or so busy that there isn’t any soul left or just dead. Baltimore made me feel so depressed that I could not face walking around seeing the boarded up houses in spite of rich history of the city.

I am yet to find a place/city that I cannot bear to be in at all once I recover from jetlag and exhaustion. Given enough time and the right conditions I’d like to believe I can find something to do and like (even if it is the hotel gym).

At the moment, I think this old Hindi song, “Musafir hoon” (an inadequate translation of the lyrics can be found here)  best summarizes my state of mind.

How do you find travel and being a nomad?



Standing on a soapbox!

In this rather long absence from blogging I’ve been bolstering my courage- to stand on a soapbox and talk about Science!

Coming to Sydney for the first time, Soapbox Science, is a way to take science to the

image of circular quay, sydney

image of circular quay, sydney

general public. Female scientists stand (quite literally) on a soapbox and talk about their

picture of speakers for 2019 Soapbox Science Sydney

The Soapbox Science Sydney speakers on prep day

research, science in plain English to engage the public. Usually the event is held in a very public area that is frequented by people, families, kids etc. In our case, this will be Circular Quay near the iconic Sydney Opera

House on 10 August 2019. Check out Soapbox Science Sydney!

I like the idea that we take Science to the people here and not keep waiting for the people to come to science. Because when we do that we reach the few who are already interested in science and we miss out those who do not have a STEM background (and may not have thought of or be comfortable taking their children to science museums, for example). Falling number of students, especially girls, in STEM education are a clear warning that we need to engage communities in STEM – it’s importance and how cool it is, the career options it provides. On the other side we need to continue working in a way that members of the public trust scientists and ask their political representatives to inform policy decisions based on good science. For example read this article.

Soapbox is in part inspired by the Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, where people could on their soapbox during victorian times in London speak their mind on any topic freely.

Now in my case courage is required because this is a big change from the classroom teaching and conference presentation  setting that I am used to. No more the quiet room with a powerpoint prop… no more a scientific audience. Instead it will be a super busy, open area (Circular Quay attracts about 7,000 people), with people from all walks of life and age groups, nationalities. Some will have no interest in Science or engineering and some will, some will be knowledgeable and others not… I might be asked any question. People will be in rush to catch their train or ferry, while other might be just wanting to sight see in peace. The biggest fear is that I will bore the people.

How does one talk about highly technical research in a way in everyday language that people can relate to? The challenge before me is to help connect to their lived experience or interest and engage them. Share with them my love for science.

So for now I am spending time doing voice exercises to project my voice, modulate my tone and pitch! And hoping like hell that no one eggs me on the day!


CLEO 2019 Wrap: So proud! Need a concept conference

I am writing this post in the airport as I wait for my 15 hour flight (!!!!) back to Sydney. The thought of the upcoming 15 hours is bringing tears to my eyes and this blogpost is my distraction!

Unlike the usual conference wrapups I do, I thought I’d write about what I want to see more of on the technical side. Most papers (submitted/invited) tend to focus heavily on the results. There seem to a tonne of slides with graphs (and the like)- change this variable value and the graph moves in this way sort of thing. While the fundamental Physics/Science seems squeezed into 1 slide (if that) and gets maybe 0.5 minute.

What I propose:

Just the reverse: A concepts track in the conference where the papers exclusively focus on the new science. The methodology (unless there is new Science here) and results are restricted to 1 slide only. There may be fewer papers in this track, and that is fine. I want to hear some really interesting new concept, or challenge to existing concepts in these presentations. I want to go away with my mind expanded by the science, not full of the technology. Incremental advances in performance bore me to tears: that is not why I became a  scientist. I’d love to see an emphasis on cool, innovative science, even if the applications are not apparent yet, or the concept can’t be demonstrated experimentally… Some of the most exciting Physics came from ideas that could not be demonstrated when first proposed. Yet currently the focus is heavily on applications and/or what can be demonstrated. At times this focus can eclipse exciting ideas.

So moving on to why I felt so proud this CLEO : this year we held the first Pride in Photonics workshop for LGBTQI+ scientists, allies, diversity advocates. It was a terrifying moment for us: how would people react, would anyone attend? The sense of isolation and unique challenges that LGBTQI+ folks face in a largely heteronormative and quite conservative STEM community is strong, with negative impact on wellbeing and the Science they can do. We wanted to start addressing this loneliness by connecting LGBTQI+ individuals with each other, as well as educating allies on these issues and how to be strong advocates for inclusion.

It was a wonderful event: there was sharing of technical research and personal journeys. People connected and for many it was an emotional experience: being able to be themselves fully in a scientific context for the first time. I can safely say we all learned something new about how to treat others with more respect and not making assumptions about people. It was a moment of great pride for me (and many of us there). Join us for the next workshop! See some resources here.being an ally

Being an ally to the LGBTQI+ community. Source: Joby Razzell Hollis, @Jobium, founder of @LGBT_Physics link



Peculiar stuff this and diary of an academic nomad

Reflecting on my 14 months in Australia, put me in a slightly head scratching mood. The changes in my life have been both enormous in some spheres and it feels like a whole new world.

Technical first: My role is currently split: 50% academic (same old!) and 50% Director of Women in Engineering & IT. While I had always been active as a volunteer in the


Volunteer recognition evening for Women in Engineering & IT

diversity space, this role is my first time doing it as part of my job. That has meant a whole slew of new things: managing a mixed team of academic and non academic staff, making strategy, advising on policy, dealing with industry and media…

All of a sudden I feel like I am using all my skills: the ones reserved for academia typically: technical research and teaching, but also management and strategy, people skills in a big way. I feel more satisfied and exhilarated than I have in a long time. I get energy from people and this I take to my research,  the satisfaction I get by driving diversity encourages me and gives me resilience when I can’t find solutions to a technical problem.  Equally the technical work satisfies the scientist in me and my love for science and sharing it with others. It is a pity that we often get pigeonholed into a set type of role/job and rarely get to explore all the things we can do. With this experience my mind has opened and I hope I never have to settle for 1 narrow thing again!

Now the social!

I was quite used to separating out my social life and work... I was certainly not used to holidays and weekend trips with colleagues! Now I find that many of my friends are drawn from amongst my colleagues. More and more when I trave

ambassadors 2016

2016 Class of OSA Ambassadors

l to another city or country I find that I know someone from my professional body connections: (OSA Ambassadors or local sections) or people I’ve worked with on diversity from IEEE Photonics Society. These are often people my age+/- 10 years and I really enjoy hanging out with them- eating out/shopping/sight seeing… you name it.

These fantastic folks who I now count as friends (started out as colleagues in a professional body) are not necessarily people I do research with. But we volunteered together and that seems to be a binding glue of a special kind. I know that wherever I may go (a complete stranger in a strange land) I will have a network to turn to- which gives me such enormous joy. I didn’t think science would give me this, but it has.

For an academic nomad, knowing you have this support waiting for you is pretty special.

By artiagrawal Posted in General

What do you do?

What do you do immediately after completing a massive, challenging and draining endeavour?

Yesterday I submitted my very first Australian Research Council (ARC) grant proposal under the Discovery Project or DP as it is popularly called down under. Its extremely competitive and it seems that people devote months to writing their proposals. There are specialists in the universities to help with the entire process…

And I am drained… hence the question.

As I reflect on the process and what it was like, I wonder how one recovers from it effectively? So how do the chips fall?

The pros:

  • I am telling the research story better, a lot better!
  • I opened myself up and was vulnerable: I asked  some  colleagues for feedback on my draft. I was terrified that they might find my ideas boring or infantile and my work inadequate. You know, the usual imposter syndrome. What I got however, was really positive feedback and real help… so it makes me want to work more with these people and also I think it improved my proposal!
  • Made me think more deeply about the topic of the proposal in question, since I had to bring out things like innovation in ideas, quality in the proposal.

The cons:

  • For the last many weeks the grant is all I’ve worked on (in terms of research). I have’t done any actual research!! And I wonder if that is how it ought to be- just keep asking for money for research but never have time to do the research it self?
  • I am so exhausted both physically and mentally now that I need a holiday. It was a stressful process to work so hard and have no guarantee of success. Its like being hungover without having any of the fun leading to the feeling of being wrecked.
  • The success rates being so low, is the time better spent on actual research?

I am going home early today as the brain’s gone missing in action… courtesy of the grant.

What do you do to recover?


As I have continued my reading of “A Beautiful Question” it’s led me to ask questions of my own, and connect (or mistakenly try and connect) a ragtag bunch of ideas. So bear with me as I try and make sense of the various thoughts running about in my head making a mishmash.

Wilczek mentions Plato and his theories including that of forms or the theory of ideas: the world as we perceive it is only a copy or image of some true or ideal world. His allegory of the cave is to help us understand how a perception is limited. To me it is beautiful to imagine that something can exist in the abstract realm even if we cannot realise it fully. But that is not the central point in this blog post. Keep this idea of an ideal or perfect truth in your mind.

Plato was inspired by another philosopher (among many others) called Parmenides, of whose work there have been several interpretations. The one that Wilczek quotes relates to the theological-dialectical interpretation. In my poor understanding this interpretation implies that what we can think about, speak about, indeed the very truth, is unchanging. To me this seems to tie into the idea of Plato’s perfect ideas.

Wilczek goes on to mention orphism (another ancient Greek spiritual/religious sect, which to me sounds very close to the Hindu/Buddhist traditions- see another link on orphism, although this similarity is not mentioned in what I have read so far).

Why bring up orphism?

The central idea that the soul is trapped in the prison of the human body, and must reincarnate repeatedly to get rid of sin by purification and free itself again-suggests that there is an ideal or pure form, and the worldly one is not it.

So now coming to the question that all of this has opened into my head:  why are we so obsessed with a single or rather singular truth? I am curious why a single truth is so essential to our mental and emotional comfort? Why can there not be multiple truths all describing the same thing? As in fact the perception of each individual is different of the same thing (for example the colour blue- how can you tell what blue looks like to me? or how can I ever really know what sweet taste like to you? Even if we can agree that something is blue in colour or a piece of chocolate is sweet).

Whether it is philosophy or religion or indeed even science we are in a quest to find the single underlying truth-the ideal. In physics the search for a grand unified theory, or indeed a framework that can explain all the different forces is ongoing.

I sometimes wonder that the theories we have devised in science are deterministic and tend to look for a unique answer as far as possible. Whether it is our way of observation that forces us to perceive only one way of being as opposed to the multiple ways of being or truth that might exist?

Wilczek does mention quantum mechanics and how observation can collapse the system into a particular state. I will continue reading and when I read more detail on this I shall report back.

Let me now throw in another concept that has troubled me for a while: intrinisic value or nonderivative value. Perhaps I mean the very essence of something. Intrinsic value seems to be associated with some moral framework, so my question is perhaps more about nonderivative value. Can something exist in a vacuum? If there is no one to observe an event is the event real? If there is no one to feel/react to something – does it not exist? Does aesthetic beauty exist without a beholder? Is the intrinsic value (not the moral kind) the truth we search for?

Meanwhile what do you think: is there one truth or many? and why do we want a certain type of truth?

The basis of beauty

I recently began reading a book (its been long overdue) by Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics: A Beautiful Question.

I had attended a lecture by him 2 years ago and obtained a (signed, no less!) copy. To my chagrin I’ve opened it now to read seriously. The central theme of the book is the question “Is the world a work of art?”

It is my intention to blog about what I read if I like it (which I do to this point, very much).  Disclaimer: I am not trying to plagiarise the work or present it as my own, this is simply an account of my understanding of the work, with notes added in.

So here goes my poor account of the first bit:

Wilczek begins in ancient Greece (I wonder why no one wants to go to ancient China or India?) and relates how Pythagoras was one of the first to connect the concepts of number, space and harmony. With the famous Pythagoras’s theorem we are familiar how the sides of a right triangle and the hypotenuse link: this can be seen as a link between the numbers (representing the lengths of the sides) and the physical shapes (of the areas of the squares of the sides).

Then comes the link between numbers and harmony: what tones sound harmonious

the basilar membrance: analysis of sound frequencies

Basilar membrane: analysis of sound frequencies Image credit: Credit:Getty Images/Universal Images Group

together? Pythagoras found that in stringed instruments with the length of the strings being plucked (if tension, material of string etc. is identical) are in ratio of small whole numbers they sound harmonious. Similarly if the tension in the strings (length remaining equal) are in ratios of squares of small whole numbers, the two tones sound harmonious. The link between numbers and harmony thus becomes explicit.

The basilar membrane in our ear responds to frequencies in a spatial manner: thicker parts respond to low frequencies. So frequencies are now spread out in space (inside our ear)! The primary sensory neurons in the organ of Corti, that abuts the basilar membrane, carry information of sound to higher level neurons and so on till our brain gets the message.

Why do certain tones sound harmonious together? Why are some sounds beautiful and not others?

Wilczek explains that when two frequencies or tones are played simultaneously, two sets of primary neurons fire, each at the same frequency as the sound (source). These signals, as they are carried to higher neurons are combined. Therefore, at higher stages some neurons (let’s call them H) will receive input from both primary neurons. If the primary (neuronal) frequencies are in ratio of small whole numbers the signals will be synchronized and repeatable/periodic. The example he gives is that if the tones form an octave, one set (or primary) will fire twice as fast as the other. Every time the slower one (S) fires it will have the same predictable relationship with the firing of the faster neuron (F). The neurons at higher level, sensitive to both S and F will receive a repetitive pattern that is eaay to predict and interpret, as well as anticipate.

Still higher level neurons combine (H2) the signals received from H levels. When H produces coherent signals and correct predictions the H2 neurons likely reward the system with positive feedback. Incorrect predictions cause discomfort and need to be stopped.

This is his idea that underlying basis of harmony is successful prediction in early stage of perceiving something. Successful prediction is sensed as beauty and pleasure. Unsuccessful prediction is sensed as painful or even ugly. He goes on to say that by exposure individuals can learn to enjoy tone combinations that may be at first unpleasant- that we can learn to make predictions and those predictions that require some effort may give greater aesthetic or sensory reward.

When the tones are very close to each other but not quite in sync (e.g., C and C#) the vibrations will reinforce each other for a  few cycles. The combiners at H level will therefore extrapolate and anticipate this to continue. But the tones will not. Therefore they cause discomfort.

I am excited to continue my reading and will report back later!

Is Artificial Intelligence gendered?

Artificial Intelligence or AI as it is populary known is the next biggest thing. Or is it already the biggest thing?

Anyhow, machine learning is being used and will be used even more in the future to predict things, make decisions and will impact our lives from the shopping options that show up on our screens to news articles on our feed to the jobs we might get shortlisted for.

Is it any wonder that one worries if AI and machine learning is gendered, racist etc.?

Machine learning algorithms learn from large data sets. If the data sets (example records of managerial positions) are gendered (mangerial positions have largely been biased towards males) then the algorithm will learn this inherent bias and produce outputs that are biased too. What is even worse is that as machine learning algorithms become ubiquitous in processes, the biases can become systematic.

The biases can disadvantage minority groups particularly and in this day when so much effort is being made towards equity, it would be a shame to be hobbled in this way.

What can we do about this?

It fascinated me to read about techniques to overcome this problem. Low bias techniques focus on lowering the bias/error in learning and hence prediction. But these techniques will have a large variance if a different data set is used for training. On the other hand, low variance techqniues will (as the name suggests) produce lower differnce in error if different data sets are used, but suffer from high bias.

Like most things in life: there is a tradeoff. In this case between variance and bias.

To me that is depressing reading as a person impacted by it. As a scientist it is an opportunity to do some really challenging, exciting work which has an immediate effect on society!

For those of us not working in these fields however, there are other ways to contribute: here is a great resource on how to be a more inclusive engineer (i think this can extend to all scientist, dont you?)






Perth and remembering…

I was in Perth last week (which seems a lifetime ago!) attending the annual meeting of the Australian Optical Society (AOS) which was co-located with the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) congress. It was a time of a few firsts for me, 1st time

  • in Perth
  • at an AOS meeting
  • a meeting of this sort!!!

so more on the last: the AIP congress meant that there were sessions from various branches of Physics: Nuclear, Bio, Particle, Astronomy and so on. There were amazing invited talks in all these branches (in addition to the AOS stream) . It was such a delight to go to some of these and listen to other areas of Physics!!

The great thing was that most speakers had invested enough time and effort in making the introductions accessible to a non-specialist audience. Therefore even folks like yours truly could get something in each of the invited talks from the many areas.

What I loved about that was that I could remember now why I loved Science and became a scientist. This wasn’t just about my day job or specilist area, but about the broader grandeur and wonder of Science. Having attended this format of meeting, I am now a big fan.

In future I’d love to see many more of these larger congresses. It sparks curiosity, interest and new ideas. Not only does it let you know whats happening in the larger field of Science, it also gives you the opportunity to meet people from other disciplines (who you may not normally interact with) and form funky collaborations.

One of the most unusual and really welcome aspects of the meeting was the presence of 2 tracks: one on Physics teaching/education and the other on diversity and inclusion. Most academic conferences in STEM focus on research findings and completely ignore research into teaching/pedagogy and the importance that education has for all of us. So it was great to see sessions on pedagogy, posters about it and workshops!

The programming on Diversity and inclusion where it exists is typically purely social events and most are attended by women. There are many people who show up for the free food and drink and do not engage much with the actual content. But here the situation was very different. There were all kinds of people attending the tracks, and lively discussions were had. So all in all I felt intellectually stimulated, inspired and happy!

The added advantage was getting a glimpse of beautiful Perth.

The natural beauty of Australia just blows me away, even when I feel that after so many months there I am used to this gorgeous place. No way!



Pierogi and more in Poland

To travel is fun. To travel to fun places for great events and meet incredible people and eat amazing food is FUN.

That is what I was doing in the last 2 weeks. After attending LAOP in Peru I travelled to London for meetings and then to Warsaw for a Women in Tech summit.

More than 2000 women (most of them quite young) who are involved in STEM/IT/Tech in some way (some are studying, some working) attended the summit. The atmosphere was incredible. The energy of the attendees and the buzz each of us felt at seeing so many women was truly uplifting. We are so used to being one of the few women at most tech events, that to be the majority is an experience in itself. I would highly recommend this kind of event to every woman.

And to every man: To know what it feels like to be in a small minority. I’ve spoken about empathy before. Try and feel, live the world from another’s perspective.

There were several tech and professional development workshops that I found useful. The networking was great. To see the numbers was encouraging because if this is what the future holds (engaged, talented women in tech) then we are heading in the right direction.

But as the title of the blog suggests I did more than just appreciate the summit. I had lots of pierogi (filled dumplings). And visited the Marie Curie museum! Now if you want to think of the sort of family dinner where one casually says “oh last week I won another Nobel”, this is the family for it. Consider the family tree: MArie Curie and her husband shared the Nobel in 1903 (though she had another Nobel too). Their daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband both won the Nobel in 1935, the other daughter Eve was married to another Nobel prize winner.

All in all I was a happy person: good food, good wine, good company, inspiration everywhere!

Next week I visit Perth for the Australian Optical Society’s annual conference and then Photonics India. So more on that later.