Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How do you teach when your school is on strike?

Hola chicos!

As many of you know, I'll be spending much of this summer in Santiago de Chile, teaching experimental physics to high school students in a creative format modeled after the International Young Physicists Tournament.
Some of you will have seen Andrei Klishin prepare the program by writing fellowship applications, talking to IYPT organizers, and persuading the Physics department to back us (thank you, Physics, for my plane tickets and apartment!). And then you'll have seen me preparing by desperately attempting to learn Spanish. The last few days have been a pretty intense test. I'm getting good at making babytalk and rapidly misconjugating verbs.

This morning, I and two other team members, Jake and Jordan, met with a Professor from the Liceo Numero Uno for girls. I was more than a little worried, by the thought of having to sound professional in Spanish, and because when I emailed Profesora L. to ask about the schedule for our activities she told me she wasn't sure what I meant by "schedule".

Fortunately, Profesora L. and her two colleagues are wonderfully friendly, as well as twelve-exclamation-points-per-email enthusiastic about our program. They weren't even visibly put off by our hesitant Spanish, though I did catch a whispered 'no se si entienden' [I don't know if they understand] between them.

Chilean students are holding protests all over the city, demanding a series of reforms including free secondary education for all and free bus fare to get to school. The teachers unions are on strike for better pay and shorter hours. These issues have been erupting in Chile over the past decade, as promised reforms are diluted or disappear. At the moment, both of the schools we'll be working at, the Liceo Numero Uno and the Instituto Nacional, are on strike and fully occupied by protesting students.
School gates in Chile (not the Liceo Numero Uno, but with similar decoration).

Students manned a reception desk near the gate of Liceo Numero Uno, and allowed us in with the profesores. Behind the reception, two large signs were posted for the public. One listed upcoming events, including protest meetings and biology and physics tutorials, and the other asked for food donations. Salsa con carne, hamburguesas de soya, galletas!, AMOR...

We walked across a courtyard and upstairs to the physics lab, where the profesores moved a bookshelf out of the doorway and unlocked it so we could enter. It was like a beautiful little museum. Cast-iron metal wheels and glass bell jars sat on top of tall cabinets full of antique electronics equipment, some of it mounted on lovely carved wood, and blown glass devices for all kinds of purposes. It's not new, but functionna, functionna, we heard.

Then, as the experimental physics teachers started setting up a small demonstration in which we would discharge a capacitor across bottles of gas (allowing us to see their spectral colors), we listened to a description of their physics program. Which was impressive. One of the experimental profesores told us that he had recently build a radioastronomy telescope with a group of students, and showed me a video of his results during a recent solar storm. Profesora L. had been working to train a group of students for the International Physics Olympiad, and was excited to hear about another international competition for them. The demonstration never did work, but two of the professors patiently adjusted and re-set it throughout our conversation.
Statue on my street in Santiago
On our way out, we pushed the bookcase back across the door. Profesora L. picked up a discarded book, read its cover (linguistics) and left it again. In the courtyard, the students had set up a stereo system, and two of them were selling shirts and soy hamburgers while others talked. Stray dogs wandered in and out of the gates, and a girl shook a cup to ask us for money for the protest.

I am way, way out of depth here. Linguistically, pedagogically, and politically. But I hope that our program will at least give some of these students a worthwhile project to work on during these very interesting times.

Mi amor a la casa,

Les week-ends français

Bonjour !

It is quite unfortunate that I have not managed to post on the LMF summer blog until now. It is definitely summer, no question. Europe is expecting a heat wave to hit: France has activated its national heatwave emergency plan, Wimbledon's "heat breaks" in women's games are causing controversy surrounding gender (in)equality in tennis, and EMBL is set to celebrate 4 July with a summer festival and a temperature of 100 °F (38 °C). For comparison, my country's highest recorded temperature is 35.6 °C. I guess my plan to escape from the Boston summer by running away to Germany is not working as well as I hoped.   
My roommate has two cats
This is actually already my second summer doing MISTI-Germany. In 2013, I was terribly late with my planning and started the process in April (MISTI recommends applying by November). I swore I'd never leave making plans for the summer so late again. Well, guess what, I was not completely sure what I'd be doing this summer until the Friday before finals. 
The three vehicles of Germany
EMBL canteen offers asparagus risotto (pictured above), crème brûlée, and dim sum
Everything worked out great in the end, though. I am working on the epigenetic of neurodevelopment in the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg until the end of August. Our lab is small (PI, technician, two PhD students and a post-doc who is in France) and I like my job a lot. Two days into my internship, the Genome Biology unit had a two-day retreat in a fancy hotel close to the French border (my phone thought I was in France). Everybody had to present their research, you can probably imagine how much I had to tell. On the second day, we walked to a winery, had lunch and wine in the cellar (after an hour's walk in the sun, many struggled with leaving the cold room). The person directing us back to the hotel was not the same as the one who got us there, so at some point a hundred molecular biologists were stranded on a hillside between grapes and had to slide down the dirty slope. Definitely not what I had expected after the first half of the "hike" had been on a nice asphalt road.
The main form of agriculture in Baden-Württemberg
My first weekend here, I worked on Saturday and travelled to Frankfurt on Sunday to meet LMF alumni travelling in Germany. Ben '12, Juan '12, Adrienne '13, Sophie '14, Rashed '15 and me '16 - five classes of LMF, pretty neat. Not much French was spoken, but we had ice cream and sat by the river. Frankfurt itself is not the most exciting city.   
Gutenberg Museum in Mainz (Gutenberg used dogskin to "ink" the machines because it has no pores) 
Jesse and Daniela on a shelf in Wiesbaden Hbf (we initially thought that Bräutigam was just an ugly male name, until I realised it means "fiancé" in German)
My second weekend here, two friends from Estonia were visiting and we went to Strasbourg. My first time in France proper, actually (airports don't count as having been to France and CDG should not even count as a proper airport). The old town was beautiful and the European Parliament has a nice glass building, although the entire neighbourhood looks deserted at 10 p.m. on Saturday. The trams were the best, though, such beauties. While Germans seem to often switch to English even when you speak German, French waitresses will stick to French even when you make it clear you do not understand the language.
We visited Karlsruhe on the way to Strasbourg (disclaimer: the cranes in Luxembourg were used for slightly different purposes)
What a beauty! ("Tere tulemast" is in Estonian) 
Le Petit France
My third weekend here, I went to Luxembourg to visit some friends who go to university in Scotland, so I do not see them too often. They have a dog! Luxembourg had just celebrated Grand Duke's Night, the official birthday of the grand duke. Oddly enough, no ruler of Luxembourg has ever actually been born on 23 June and the current one's birthday is in April. We had dinner (a veggie BBQ) with some family friends, who were also British. Their dogs drink tea with milk and "Beowulf" is bathroom literature. One of their sons also goes to Oxford, so the weekend had elements of all my three great loves: dogs, trains and Oxford.
New York skyline has skyscrapers, Luxembourg City's skyline has yellow cranes
I thought Luxembourg was mostly German-speaking. I was so wrong. Turns out that Luxembourgish the language is doing pretty well (although the Britons seem to find it too ugly to learn) and French is actually the most prevalent lingua franca. So, somewhat unexpectedly my third weekend ended up French as well.   
Heidelberg is pretty!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Conquering the elements!

I just came back from my first windsurfing experience several hours ago. BEST. THING. I'VE DONE. IN A WHILE. The result of the 2.5 hour lesson was me totally drenched (yay swimsuit though!) but with the widest smile on my face that I still can't shake.

But let me tell you, it's no piece of cake. It's HARD. When I first tried to raise the sail while standing on the sail board, I felt like a total loser. I kept falling over and over. My feet were shaking. It seemed impossible to keep my balance while lifting the darn heavy thing from the water, while it's mostly submersed in it! Finally, I realized how to do it, with the instructor guy screaming to use my shoulders rather than arms to pull it up. It worked!

Then came the harder part: actually positioning myself on the board when the mast is up. At this point, I had to move my feet in a different position, behind the mast, and adjust my leaning angle, while completely extending my arms holding the sail. THIS was hard. I fell over and over again, with no avail. Water was pretty nice though. :) At the end I got a tiny amount of balance, gliding just a meter or so with the wind. Then - splash!

Finally I switched with someone else, jumping into the motor boat with the other learners, and watched to the other boards either struggle (the total beginners like me) or sail pretty smoothly (those with some experience) in the water. The Charles was really pretty, with the sun just beginning to set.

The wind was also pretty low, which did not bother me at the least. Heck, I thought, I can do this! I jumped at the next opportunity to get the board. They dropped me off on a board somewhere in the middle of the Charles, and this time I got on without any hesitation. My feet were no longer shaking, and I could stand confidently on the thing. I pulled up the mast like it's what I usually do at 7:15PM on Monday nights, and positioned myself accordingly. Somehow, I was heading upwind -- so I extended the sail and then brought it parallel to myself. This caused me to accelerate rapidly against the wind, and I was gliding! I was fast! I controlled it! I controlled the wind and water - both elements, with my body weight in delicate tension with the mast and sail. It was the most amazing feeling of unity and power.

Then, when wind started changing direction, I tried my best to adjust my position and the sail position relative to the wind. I felt like I needed to turn, but they hadn't taught us tacking yet. I tried to improvise, but -- splash! That was that. Ah well, swimming is fun :D

Coming up next: conquering earth and fire? :)

P.S. Speaking of earth.... This weekend I also finally went to the MITOC circus, and hiked the Tripyramid loop + 2 other peaks, a total of 28km (17 miles) with cumulative altitude gain of 6,000 ft (1,800m!). This was done in about 10 hours with less than 4 hours of sleep -- and no caffeine! Perhaps there is something energizing in just being in the wilderness; the body is fueled by sunlight, the lungs with the purest breeze, and eyes with excitement and wonder of the surrounding nature. Hey, I know it's corny, but it's true! :D Check out these sweet views from Mt. Whiteface, for instance (not even one of the Tripyramids!):

Ok, I am being pretty sleek about this, but we were pretty darn exhausted by the end. Check out the progression of our smiling faces throughout the 17 mile journey... 

In the beginning, about 2 hours in:

~6 hours in, second to last peak: 

10 hours in (check out the ripped muddy pants, twitching eyes, "smiling" faces, etc): 
 Well... it was worth it! :) More nature-y photos here -- get inspired! 

Also, here's the trail map of what we covered for anyone curious, or wanting to repeat it:

Map credit to this site

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The big roadtrip : Boston to Colorado

Bonjour la maison!

Since the day after I left MIT - graduated, even! - my mom and I have been driving west, with nearly everything I own packed into and on top of my battered Buick.

Map and image: Google maps
I've just left my things in a little self-storage facility near Denver airport, so I can fly straight into Denver in August. James has been following us on his new motorcycle (vroooom!) and will continue on towards Los Angeles after I fly for Santiago tomorrow. Mom is flying back east.

For now I'm sunbathing at a motel pool, eyeing toddlers who get too close to splashing my laptop. James is out shopping for toothpaste, since we accidentally came all this way with just one travel tube for the three of us.

Oh, and a quick warning to the underclassmen: moving is bloody expensive. I've already paid my Boulder landlord three months' rent (first month, last month, and deposit), and this trip cost some hundred dollars for each of gas, food and motel rooms (read on for my futile attempts to reduce this by camping), and the self-storage rental. Sigh.


In eastern Pennsylvania we stopped at a place called Frances Slocum State Park. Mom and I arrived after dark, so we left money in an envelope at the ranger's station and found a campsite tucked far away in the back of the campground. We set up my tent and hammock,went out for Chinese takeaway, and pulled our breakfast things out of my boxes, and talked about the night's weather. I spent another hour listening to every car and wondering what James and his motorcycle had gotten up to over the last 300 miles before his single headlight finally shone on the road below.
My very favorite bug!
In the morning we brewed coffee on our camp stoves and hunted bugs. Inchworms, we decided, like to crawl on round things. Green inch-long worms walked in circles around my coffee pot, and when I shook my tent three bark-colored inchworms as long as my hand fell from the tent-poles.

James and I spent a week with my parents in Pittsburgh. I ran with our elkhound, Fei; cooked lots of vegetarian curries and soups; tore rogue grapevines off of our garden walls; and almost bought a hand-made wool coat at a local art and music festival.

The we drove up to Ann Arbor to see Ben! 

Don't be deceived by the sunniness of U Michigan in this photo. Between Pittsburgh and Michigan we ran headlong into a big thunderstorm. We drove 35mph along the interstate and no one passed us. Poor Ben had to let us in out of the storm at about 3am.

The next day, mom and I stopped at the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan
Here at Indiana Dunes State Park, the lake looked and sounded like the ocean - waves crashed into sand; vans solf overpriced hotdogs and ice cream; teenagers played volleyball in their bikinis. It was a surprise to walk into the water without feeling the familiar sting of salt on my legs. The only thing which broke the illusion was the western horizon, where Chicago's silhouette is faint but visible above the waves.

In Illinois, we tried to camp at a small county recreation area - a patch of preserved trees amongst endless farmland. Mom and I arrived after dark, so we drove around inside until we found the campsites (almost all empty). Since the website said that reservations weren't required, we figured we could go pay the rangers in the morning. We went back to the entrance to wait for James' motorcycle headlight, but instead, after fifteen minutes, we were hit by flashing red and blue lights. The gates were closing for the night (locking in any campers?), and the ranger was duly surprised to find a silent car, with a full trunk and roofrack, staring out towards the road. Our 'third party member delayed on the road' story didn't go over well, as James wasn't able to pick up his phone, and we ended up driving another half hour to find a motel.

The Midwest - we spent two full days in Iowa, Nebraska and Eastern Colorado - was even bigger than I had imagined it, though less flat. Western Nebraska in particular is covered in beautiful rolling hills. They reminded me of English farmland but on a much greater scale. 
One beautiful part of the flat farmland - panoramic sunsets.
We stopped overnight in Lincoln, NE to visit one of my mom's cousins, whose wife absolutely spoiled us with her lovely house and a good Italian dinner :-)

Two Days in Denver

Finally, Denver. I rented a storage unit big enough for my car with all of my boxes piled on top. Mission accomplished!

We visited a tasty microbrewery, and made the inevitable stop at the Natural History Museum:
We planned to camp at Golden Gate Canyon State Park the next night. When we got there we were kindly told that, although their website states that reservations are not necessary, people who want tent space on a pretty weekend in June really should have booked at least six months in advance. Ah, well. James and I ran up to the highest peak in the park - 10200 feet, the Rockies are high - and climbed around the rocky summit for a while.
James working a pirate/cartel mountain look.
Then we came down and ate noodles and watermelon with mom as the sun set over the Rockies. Good mountains. Good day.
Alright. This took a while. I'm now in the airport, and my flight has been boarding for the last ten minutes. Adios!