The non-academic job hunt, final part (or: how I got my job)

24 Jun

For all that navel-gazing and existential dilemma-ing I did in part 0 of this series, and the coffees and informational interviews and LinkedIn profiles and career counseling I did in part 1, and the excitement and gratitude I had about getting and completing the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, it feels like I got my current job through luck. But I think I had to do all the hand-wringing and information-gathering to be happy and in the mindset where I could do this job, so it wasn’t all a waste.

Here’s what I do now: I write for North Carolina Health News. Sometimes I write press releases for Duke and other things. It works pretty well with the whole having-children thing. About every week I have something kid related (dentist appointment, allergy tests, parent-teacher conference, etc.)-I don’t know how full-time people do it. Anyway, I thought I’d tell you how I got these gigs: totally blind networking without realizing I was networking.

In April, before I went to the fellowship last summer, I visited Duke for my spouse’s alumni reunion weekend. It was my first time and I was excited to see the gardens and stay in a B&B and be away from the kids for a weekend. On the last morning of the reunion, we got in a two hour conversation with our B&B owners and a fellow guest, Anne, about racism, gentrification, Durham, police, etc. I messaged her on LinkedIn and we ended up corresponding for a few weeks about my blog series on racism (part 1, part 2, part 4).

I told Anne about my fellowship at the N&O. Anne had worked on the Duke student newspaper decades ago with someone she knew had recently been at the N&O, so she sent us emails and encouraged us to get lunch. I had lunch with this stranger man a few times over the summer, and it was very pleasant (he’s great; I just didn’t ask him if I could include his name in this blog post so I’m not doing so).

In July (I started the fellowship at the end of May), I got an email from my now-editor telling me that she’d gotten my info from stranger man and suggesting I apply for a job with her. I did so, and I got the job and started in September, after the fellowship ended.

For the Duke press releases, I’d been in touch with my editor there from my work over the summer, and met in person at a SciLine event in Chapel Hill (the program director at the AAAS fellowship had asked me to get in touch with him to encourage Duke to sponsor a fellow for this year). He sent out a solicitation to the local Science Communicators list, and I applied for that.  I had clips, and he already knew me, and I got it.

In August, the fellowship wrapped up in D.C. While there, I gave my business card (which I made at the beginning of summer) to several people who stopped by my poster, and I ended up writing a few press releases for them too.

Now I’ve been writing professionally for about a year (hence my passion-project blog has withered away). This is not something I would’ve imagined in 2010, 2012, or even 2016 when I first started seriously thinking about jobs. I remember staying up for a few hours with my brother and sister-in-law one night and settling on ‘project manager’ as a job for me. My Yale career counselor suggesting I look into consulting. My UT Austin career counselor suggested a scientific society. I got emails and DMs about curriculum writing, teaching, data science (did I tell you all I applied for a data science fellowship, got to round two, and decided I hated it?)… no one ever suggested ‘reporter’ as a career, and that’s what I’m doing.

Anyway, let me leave you with my very favorite slide when I talk about my career path:


I love embracing failure and difficulty and angst.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a few nice messages from people about this series on looking for a job, so I wanted to give it some closure with a plug to try things, do what you feel like, throw stuff at the wall until it sticks, and talk loudly in public about things you care about. Side note: that’s how I made one of my friends in Charlotte; he and his friend were asking each other the difference between topology and topography at the park and you bet that I walked right into that conversation while holding my baby.

Anyway, if you find yourself in this boat, good luck! There are lots of people who have been through it and can help you (like me!)


Reflections from the JMM, part 2

19 Jan

So I went to the Joint Math Meetings this week as a blogger, and I spent two hours this morning putting together a personal essay about my experiences.

It’s in line with the last personal essay I put together for the AMS, available on the Notices website here and one of the things I’m most proud of writing, though not reporting.

Anyway, if you’re a “loyal” blog reader I suppose you’ve noticed that this blog has gotten more and more defunct as time has gone by.  You can follow me at for a monthly newsletter instead.

An old friend once told me with no uncertainty that I would always be a mathematician, and I love that. Being at the JMM made me feel that there are many ways to be a mathematician and that I in fact have many more things to say than I think.  So we’ll see what I end up saying in the next few years.

In other news, I’m trying to make a side hustle of giving talks, so if you are a person who would like me to come talk to your group/department/school about science communication/making a path/equity and diversity/anything in anything I’ve written, give me a call.  By which I mean send me an email because we aren’t in the 90s.

I had a truly lovely time in Baltimore (even if I’m trapped in the airport right now for five hours thank you Southwest) and I really enjoyed seeing old and new friends and having surprising conversations.  It’s like Mary Oliver’s death caused a ripple through my life and made us all skip the light banter along the surface of the water and dive deep into the murk of mortality and legacy and why we do what we do and what makes a life worth living.  I wish I had a better audio – memory so I could recall all the beautiful things that were said, but I only have my lingering affection for all these people instead.

If you aren’t familiar, here’s one of her most famous poems, Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In the face of grief (updated)

8 Nov

Update: I received some feedback on this post so I added another suggestion: Food (longer term) and Errands (respite).  Respite is the biggest way to help caregivers.  That can vary between people (see below).

I’ve written before about grief and poems that I give to people or that I found comforting after a death. 

I just got back from visiting a friend whose father is dying. Family members are flying in from around the world to say goodbye as this man dies at home. She and her siblings and mother are taking shifts sitting and lying with him around the clock.  This was my first time in a dying-caregiving situation, rather than someone dying unexpectedly. So I thought I’d process it a bit via blog.

Note: I just wrote an article about caregiving. I also visited Chicago for a friend’s wedding last weekend and another friend told me that in her research, there wasn’t anything proven to help caregivers besides respite. Therapy, groups, etc. might work for individuals, but the only guaranteed way to help a caregiver is by giving them a break.

Tips for visiting a caregiver or grieving family, from my personal experience:

  • If possible, come. Just showing up means the world, even if all you do is sit. I remember my friends visiting after my dad died, it meant everything to me. My brother’s best friend sat on his couch for hours. It was great.
  • If you can’t come, reach out. Say SOMETHING. Even better: assure then that you don’t need a response, you just want them to know you’re thinking of them.
  • If you come and can, bring food. I brought a bunch of casseroles and an instant pot-full of ga kho and cooked rice when I got to their house. Then I bought some frozen pie crusts, a bag of frozen broccoli, a bag of diced ham, shredded cheese and eggs. I microwaved the broccoli, whisked 8 eggs with a cup of milk, then piled cheese, ham and broccoli in the pie crusts. Poured in the eggs, topped with more cheese, and baked at 350 for 45 minutes or so. My cousin brought quiche when my dad died and it was the perfect food to have in the fridge.
  • Food: close caregivers may forget to eat or be too busy to eat. Fixing a plate with a small amount of food (like a hearty snack) and putting it in their hands with a fork can help. We fed my friend’s mother a lot of small meals. When I walked in I scrambled some eggs and made toast and gave her a single egg + one piece of toast, and it was a lot for her. I remember spooning chao (congee/rice soup) into my mom’s mouth the day after my dad died.
  • More food: fruit is good. Food with vegetables baked in (a veggie lasagna, a quiche, etc.) are good. No one is thinking of healthy food but if you’re caring for a caregiver you can do that! Bananas, cut up apples or oranges, berries… the less effort required to eat, the better.
  • Food (longer term): In my visit case, it was an acute and immediate situation.  Lots of caregivers are in long-term chronic situations.  Frozen food that keeps well is great! When we had our first baby, a friend made a HUGE casserole of mac and cheese that we bagged into individual portions and froze.  My aunt made hundreds of egg rolls and froze them when my dad died.  Dumplings, lasagnas, casseroles, enchiladas, soups- all good.
  • Make coffee. (I didn’t do this but it was necessary and someone did it.) Top off coffee mugs, collect them and wash them.
  • Chores: do dishes! Wash dishes, load and unload dishwashers, clean and cook.
  • Take out trash, recycling, bust out a vacuum if you see one.  If possible ask a non-main caregiver on where these things are. Laundry is helpful too.
  • Errands: if people are coming in from out of town and staying, see if you can help solve problems. I helped unwrap and place some mattresses, and ran to the store to get sheets (and aforementioned quiche ingredients).
  • Errands (respite): For longer-term care, giving the caregiver a break so they can go grocery shopping in peace or sit at a coffee shop and zone out or buy a towel from Target may be more valuable than running the errands yourself.  Ask! A friend watched my newborn for an hour so I could go get a postnatal massage and it remains one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
  • Care: if there are kids or animals around, offer to take care of them. Walk the dogs, walk the kids or take them to a park or play with them. I sang a bunch of songs to an 18 month old.
  • If possible, encourage caregiver to exercise. Take them on walks, lead them in mild yoga. My best friend walked me in laps around the hospital after I had my first baby.
  • Encourage naps. Even asking gently “when’s the last time you slept?” can shake caregiver into realizing. Or if you’re close like that you can command them to nap. My spouse did this to me in both newborn periods.
  • Check in often and for a long time. Even months later- in the throes of grief it felt like I had stopped and the world had gone on and it wasn’t fair, just knowing a friend remembered that I had loved someone once and now they were gone helped.

This remains one of my favorite grief poems. I joined a grief poetry group years ago and this was in my email box, by Susan Florence:

I think I am letting him go.
It is not that my love is diminished
or that I miss him less.
It is only that the sun is up
and there is no milk
in the refrigerator
and the bunny got out
of the cage
and is eating my red geraniums.
I think I am letting him go.
But sometimes at night
before I go to sleep
I feel the tears
fill up my eyes
and run down my cheeks.
I do not think I will ever
let him go.
But he is gone.


Another note: when my dad died I told one friend. He ran into a mutual friend and told him, who then told our friend group and I received a bunch of calls and emails and texts. I was so happy to get those. I’m not great at sharing sad things in my life and I was so pleased that my friends knew me enough to share for me. I think a lot of people aren’t good at reaching out for help but would take it happily.

Chicago recommendations

7 Nov

I wrote this post from a plane on my way back from Chicago last weekend. Maybe I’ll do one for each city I’ve lived in [Orange County, California, Santa Barbara (2010-2012), New Haven (2006-2010), Austin (2014-2016)] eventually. A friend asked me to write a blog post of recommendations that I have from my time in the city. Okay! Let’s do this!

I cried a little bit when I landed and entered the city that I love so much, but I had a great weekend there and am ready to go home and see my family. But if the opportunity came up for us to move to Chicago somehow, it would be a very serious conversation because we do love that city. I bolded my favorite favorites.

Chicago recommendations

To get around: Download the Transit app. It works in very many cities, and it works very well.

To do: the Art Institute is truly incredible. Don’t miss the weird tiny miniature rooms and the fantastic paperweights downstairs right after the entrance. The stained glass mirrors in the very back are also easy to miss and wonderful.

I loved the Museum of Science and Industry this trip. I’d been once before but it was incredible this time. Loved the mirror maze and the science of Pixar exhibit, and the Swiss ball toy, and the model trains… It’s great.


I had to TRI different ANGLES to get a good picture of the mirror maze.

The Chicago architecture boat tours are just as great as everyone says they are. I had a great time on my Arrr-chitecture pirate ship tour also.

If you’re there in the fall, Open House Chicago is an incredible opportunity- the architecture foundation opens up scores of buildings and rooftops and areas not usually available to the public, and you can just walk around and learn all about the architecture of all of these incredible hidden gems.


Hey I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s Chicago, so Call ’em maybe

If you live there, consider a neighborhood walking tour– there’s like 80 available. We walked around our neighborhood and learned so much.

The Logan Square farmer’s market is great. The Wicker Park one, not so much. Of all the festivals and fairs, I like the Renegade Craft Fair the best (yearly). Picnics in Millenium Park with music are the best. Lincoln Park Zoo is fantastic and free.

Maybe not tourist attractions to anyone but me:

Mariano’s is my favorite grocery store because of its 99 cent orange juice, free juicing of produce, free steaming and grilling of seafood or meat, live music, and especially the wine and oyster bars. Hot tip: the one on South Clark does NOT have a wine nor oyster bar! What even is the point of a Mariano’s without excessively luxurious extras? Oh yeah, groceries…


My mom and I on a visit to Chicago. Oy. Sturdy snacks!

The Walgreen’s at Damen, North and Milwaukee is inside an old bank and has a really cool ceiling and old-timey pharmacy stuff on display in the Vitamin Vault.

To eat (obviously the important thing):

Chinatown: MingHin is the best dimsum in the city and also very cheap. I like Joy Yee bubble tee and Chi Cafe for food, especially anything in XO sauce.

South of UIC (I didn’t go down here much):

Pleasant House Pub was the place I went to straight from the airport. Wonderful savory pies, around $10 a pie, and delicious. I went here when it was just a bakery and now it looks popular and good for brunch too.

Lotus Banh Mi: surprisingly great banh mi shop that I ate at very often, a ten minute walk from the department. Also in the $ range.

The Rosebud: More of a $$$ range, but this old-fashioned Italian place is great, over near the UIC hospital. I’m not usually into Italian food, but this was very well done and quite flavorful- really richly flavored sauces that weren’t too heavy.

The Loop:
The Gage: $$$ classy fancy New American food right on Michigan Ave, we went here a few times before going to shows downtown. The beet salad was great, as was all their seafood dishes.

Pierogi Heaven: $ I LOVED this place. Tiny shop with hot trays on Wells Street, I think across from an adult store and next to a Subway or something. Incredible pierogies, stuffed cabbage, just general deliciousness. I went here anytime I was in the north part of the Loop.

Various neighborhoods:
Andy’s Thai Kitchen: $$ the papaya salad here was SO SPICY and so good. All the food was great and also VERY SPICY. First place I had kao soy, now one of my favorite Thai dishes- a chicken coconut curry stew with yellow egg noodles, and topped with crispy egg noodles. In Lakeview.

Isla Filipino food: I LOVED this filipino restaurant. I also love Filipino food. Just super flavorful, super delicious, BYOB and reasonably priced. I have a distinct memory of coming here with 8-10 people with a lot of beer and getting a lot of food.

Cafe Ba-ba-reeba is fancier and slightly more expensive tapas, Cafe Iberico is a ridiculous large restaurant also with great tapas. We loved both.

Chicago Diner: this vegetarian haven has been around since the 80s so you know it’s good. The Reuben is incredible. Also their vegan milkshakes are surprisingly excellent.

Yolk: great brunch.

Kasia’s: a Polish deli/restaurant/grocery store that makes the pierogies in the freezer. But their pierogies are really good!

Green Zebra: if you have a vegetarian (or is it vegan), this is THE fancy restaurant to take them. The mushroom pate was so good.

Wicker Park:
Tamale Spaceship $: hipster tamales that we loved.

Dove’s Luncheonette: one of my favorite places, a great grasp on flavors with Mex/Tex-Mex takes on brunch-y foods. The brisket taco norteno and the pepper-potato hash were the only things that had stayed on the menu in the four years since I’d been there, and they are both still great. I loved a quinoa pancake there, a sandwich that was soaked in ridiculously spicy mole sauce, a light avocado-seafood cocktail, their avocado toast was perfect… I love this place a lot. Very strong tequila cocktails.


Service is brisk. Catch a waiter if you can! [But actually service is fine I just needed to get ‘brisket’ into a sentence.]

Stan’s Donuts: the banana biscoff pocket and the pistachio old fashioned are very good donuts in a town full of very good donuts. If someone recommends a donut shop to you it’s probably great.

Enso sushi: a small place with creative, yummy sushi rolls. I regularly got off the blue line from O’Hare and went straight here.

Coast sushi: extremely good, more expensive sushi up the street. Loud but really, really good. Not as creative perhaps as Enso, and definitely not as everyday.

Mindy’s Hot Chocolate: the hot chocolate really is good. Also they have food.

1311 Empanadas: $ embarassingly often did we come here, but we lived across the street. Cheap-ish, filling, yummy empanadas!

Sultan’s: I’m not sure how long this has been here, but Sultan’s feels like an institution. Fantastic $5 falafel sandwiches, a small cold bar, just great.

En Hakkore. This Korean place only has like 4 dishes and sashimi bibimbap is one of them. I loved it.

Antique Taco: I thought the tacos here were sort of meh but everything else is incredible. Horchata drink (it was a cocktail or a milkshake) was awesome. The soups are very, very, very good.

Podhalanka: this is a very hole in the wall place that is hard to find but legit Polish food. You will be upsold and you will eat yummy, salty Polish food.

Publican Anker: I just tried this place for the rehearsal dinner of the wedding I went to and it was great. An offshoot from the Publican.

Bongo Room still draws huge lines for brunch, go super early or on a weekday for their wonderful pancakes, huge salads. People love their breakfast burrito and I think those people are wrong.

Logan Square:
Lula Cafe is truly great but also I hate waiting so go at 9:30 in the morning?

Longman & Eagle: one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Wonderful cocktails (I love savory, herby, or spicy cocktails and they hit them all), great food. The first time my husband had bone marrow was here! They do it with a bacon jam on top. The wild bison burger is great. I did not love the cauliflower-lentil dish that is always on the menu but a lot of people do. I really, really like this place and almost all their food. They also used to and probably still do interesting pop-ups in the back- once it was donuts, another time it was sausages. Those were all great.
Fancy Pants Food Places $$$$:
-Yes, I’ve been to Alinea and yes it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s perfect. The food is perfect. I don’t usually think about service but I was so, so impressed with it: jokey and teasing and lighthearted and self-deprecating with me and spouse, then immediately polished, white-glove, yes sir/maam with the table next to us.

Next: Also a yes. I mean, if you’re paying this much to go to these places you have already looked up reviews and do not need me to tell you these things…. except…

Avec: Not impressed! Slow, distracted service, not-very-memorable food for way too high a price point.

Mexique: this was fine?

Le Colonial: My least-favorite dining experience in the city. I mean, the concept is weird- let’s go back to colonial times in Vietnam when France was occupying it? I tried to order in Vietnamese and my white waitress did not know what I was saying. Why would you put Vietnamese names on your menu if you can’t understand them?

To drink:
Ipsento is one of the best coffeeshops in the country. (I don’t drink coffee but spouse is very into it).

Wormhole (Wicker Park) has a DeLorean, always has cascara, roasts HalfWit coffee, and has a dear place in my heart. Super interesting fun drinks and very hipster, great for working.

Alliance Bakery (on Division, so the bottom of Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village) was a place i worked often, even though it was cold. We got our wedding cake there!

I loved Maria’s (featured in the nytimes a few times) back when Pleasant House was next to it. Now they have Korean food?! The Zombiemaker beer cocktail had Gumball Head from Three Floyds (one of my favorite beers) mixed with grapefruit juice and maybe vodka and it was my favorite beer cocktail ever. Also my only beer cocktail.

People were always hyping Violet Hour for their $15 cocktails but like, they’re really good but not like, wait in line good.


Many places I loved in Chicago are now closed, and of course there’s now a zillion more restaurants and bars and things to do etc.  But these were some of my favorites. You can also look at my yelp for reviews etc.

Musings on respectful relationships

4 Oct

So it might be because I’m 30, or it might be (read: certainly is) because I have kids now, but I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional relationships.  Some time ago we read How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and we LOVED it.  I highly recommend it, even for adults talking to other adults.  It’s really: how to talk and listen respectfully.  We also read How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by the same authors and that one is probably a little bit more specific.  A few takeaways that we still employ with each other and our kids:

  • Sometimes you don’t need to ask questions- just share some part of your day and the other person will feel trusting enough to share part of theirs.  (Caveat spouse and I still argue about this; I have learned to ask “how was your day?” every day even though I always hated that question because it’s so vague! And hard to answer! But he likes it because it demonstrates that I care.  And demonstrating my caring is more important to me than my belief in the inanity of the question.)
  • Validate feelings. Yes, it sounds like that was frustrating. That is a tough situation. It sounds like you’re nervous about this presentation. (No need to problem solve!)
  • Describe situations instead of telling someone what to do. The towel is on the floor.  The dog is at the door. The dishes are in the sink. (Note: this can be passive-aggressive in some contexts and extremely helpful in others).
  • Instead of praising someone with adjectives, describe what you saw.  Example: you put away the dishes; thank you. You figured out that whole puzzle without any help. I see a boy who picked up his sister’s clothes, what a helper!
  • Sometimes use one word instead of nagging. Did you take care of the tax forms yet? What about those tax forms? Have you seen the tax forms?  Instead, eye contact: taxes. Nods all around.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write this post just to fawn over these books (but they are truly great!).  I just got back from an intentional parenting workshop at toddler’s preschool, and one thing that they really really stress is don’t talk about the kid in front of them.  Even seemingly-innocuous stuff like “Yen is a smart girl” or “Yen was acting emo today”–save it for later.  Because other peoples’ opinions are like weeds in your self-image, and every time someone says something about you, they’re watering the weeds. Kid thinks “Oh, I’m a shy kid.  I’ll never be outgoing, I’m just shy.”  The idea is that it constricts their growth.

And in defense of this line of reasoning, both spouse and I have complained about constantly being labeled “smart” as kids, with the implication that things are easy/we didn’t need to work hard.  Whether someone means to imply that or not, that’s what a “smart”-labeled kid gets, which means those inevitable first failures feel crushing.  That smart kid hasn’t learned persistence.  For me it was calculus freshman year; I still remember crying in my room because I thought I couldn’t cut it and wasn’t good at math and didn’t know who I was without being effortlessly good at school.  So there’s definitely some insidiousness to labeling.

But my rebuttal to this was, what about labels that help me navigate my relationship with that person?  Example is sensitivity: kid really dislikes bright lights, loud sounds, big crowds.  When a neurologist used the word “sensitive” for the first time with us, it helped things ‘click’ with us as parents.  And we can use that word with teachers and with other adults to help us help kid navigate the world–we can prepare kid for transitions into places with those lights and sounds; we can teach techniques like putting your hands over your ears or using headphones.

Their answer was: yes, share that information with teachers and adults. But not in front of the kid.  Kids can surprise you. A “shy” kid one day might burst into song in the middle of a crowd the next day. But if you call them “shy” to others then they might never burst into that song because they’ve internalized “shy” as their label.

Definitely my first reaction to this was defensiveness, as is a common reaction when anyone feels like they’re being criticized.  These people think they have all the answers and that they’re right and I’m wrong!  Well boo to them!

But because I’m a nerd or because I’ve thought about other things that make me feel defensive (see past posts on how I am sexist and how I am racist) I tried to lean into that defensiveness and figure out what was going on.

Here’s the crux of my problem with not talking about my kid in front of them: it feels deceitful.  Like I am withholding and controlling the flow of information, which is sort of the opposite of the basic tenets of my life (education, communication, media and more information/transparency = good).  Is it patronizing to control the information we give people?  This is also my problem with public health–yes, my IUD should last 12 years, but yes, the OB tells you 10 years because they think you’ll forget, and yes, I’ve heard more recently 8 years.  So what is the ‘truth’? And does it matter?

But then can I patronize my kid?  Isn’t that sort of my job? (I just looked up the definition of ‘patronize’ and it’s acting like you’re superior to someone.)  I want to treat my kid, and all my relationships, respectfully.  And especially with a power differential like the one between parent and child (or between a person with privilege and a person without), I think you want to be super cognizant of being patronizing or not.

Anyway it’s late and I’ve written enough.  I don’t think it’s necessarily patronizing to restrict information: I actually believe that inundating people with information without giving them the tools to analyze that information is disenfranchising even if you pretend that you’re being empowering.  Example: spouse is very much not a morning person, so if we take an early morning flight I try not to fill him with info about plans, kids, etc.  because we inevitably end up snapping at each other.  My job as a parent is to empower my kids to make their own decisions and live their lives safely.  So I guess I’ll do my best to do that.

The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship might change your life

9 Aug
I’m going to edit this thank you note that I sent to the AMS into an article to run in the AMS Notices, but thought I’d put the unedited version here for my readers to know just how much this fellowship has meant to me.  Sorry that I have been neglecting the blog over the summer as I wrote full time, and hopefully I’ll be able to keep putting my thoughts to paper (actually, screen), and maybe bake some yummy things.  Enjoy!
From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the American Mathematics Society so much for enabling me to write for the Raleigh News & Observer this summer.  As I wrap up this amazing summer with just a week left, I want to reflect a bit on what I’ve learned and accomplished during the past nine weeks.
I’ve accepted a part time job (hopefully full time next year) with the award-winning nonprofit news organization North Carolina Health News and plan on filling the rest of my time with freelance science journalism, connecting with the Science Communicators of North Carolina group for freelance leads.  None of this would have happened without the support of the AMS.  I cannot imagine what my life would have looked like without this fellowship- it is the jumping off point for the rest of my career doing what I love.
Of the 20 stories I’ve written so far, eight have ended up on the front page of the N&O.  The summer has convinced me that there’s a desire and thirst for science stories among the public- people want to know what’s happening in science research which can affect their lives.  One of my favorite stories of the summer was a dive into peanut allergies and upcoming treatments for them, where I interviewed biopharmaceutical companies, medical researchers, parents, and a six year old kid.  My story on using polio to treat brain cancer was also a big hit, and I covered a few other medical stories too.
A really fun reporting experience I had was covering a new kinkajou at the Carolina Tiger Rescue- I’m pretty sure I will never have another opportunity to pet a kinkajou!  So cute, so soft, so dangerous.
I told a high school girl this morning who is thinking of majoring in math that once you do math, you can do anything.  I’ve read many abstruse, dense research papers over this summer, and they were a breeze compared to the papers I read for my thesis work.  Math doesn’t exist outside of communication of it, and I think my math background really prepared me for adapting arguments and creating interesting analogies and ways to explain different ideas to different audiences.  I look forward to continuing to be involved in the math community, maybe as one of those people they trot out as ‘alternative careers’ in panels (which I am very excited about).  Please let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for the AMS.
One surprising aspect of this summer has been the fellowship component of the fellowship.  Though we only met for three days during orientation, the 2018 fellows have kept in close contact online through the summer, supporting and tweeting each others’ clips, reading cover letters, offering a space to vent about science misunderstandings and editing out science details, and exploring our own trepidation and excitement of this sometimes overwhelming plunge into a new field.  I am so privileged to be part of this network of comrades who I am certain will support me for the rest of my career.
It’s been so fun to spend a few hours learning all about fields I know nothing about- big dives into paleontologygenetics, and climatology, just to name a few.  I feel so lucky that I’ve had my mathematical experiences to ground me and give me confidence in my ability to learn anything.
On a more personal note, I love that this fellowship supports women, and I’m so grateful that I could find a site near my home so I could go home on weekends and see my baby and toddler.  Incidentally, my husband devoured the women’s history month issue of the AMS Notices.
I talked with Evelyn Lamb, who was also a AMS-sponsored Mass Media fellow, some time ago about the guilt of not being an exemplar of a woman mathematician by exiting academia, and she pointed out that she might be doing more good for the world of mathematics by spreading knowledge and awareness of it through her stories than she was as a postdoc.  I’m so grateful to the AMS for giving me this choice and this opportunity to do the same- math will always be part of me and I will always spread my love of it, and thanks to the AMS, I can now do that in a way that better matches my strengths and vision of what I want my life to look like.
With so much gratitude,
Yen Duong

Reflections on race 3/3: protesters, police, and race

9 Jul

Note: I wrote this a long time ago but am finally getting around to posting.  Thanks to Anne, Monica and Daniel for taking a look-see and adding many facts.  Note on this note: not normal journalistic practice to have sources look before you post, but this is my personal blog and also I wrote this post before any kind of journalism training.

On the last morning of our weekend in Durham grappling with racism (parts 1 and 2 here and also part 4), we had breakfast with our innkeepers, Monica and Daniel, and another guest, Anne, who was part of the organizing committee for the Vigil Commemoration as was one of many alumni who arrived at Duke after the Vigil but whose activism was inspired by the events of 1968. The conversation was far-ranging, as the previous posts have been, so I’ll try to split this post up into reasonable chunks: student protesters, police relations, and black business owners.

On Protesters

Spouse and I were chatting about reparations and the workshop from part 2, and Anne asked us if we’d seen the protest from the day before.  We hadn’t gone because it sounded really boring- a “state of the university” address from the new president of Duke, Vincent Price- but it seems like we missed out on some excitement- long video at the student newspaper here, short video at the Raleigh News&Observer (my summer home!) here.  At least 12, up to 15 minutes of student protesters interrupted the president’s address with megaphones, which as Anne pointed out wryly, “do not mix well with hearing aids”.  The students also handed out a double sided manifesto of demands, neatly listed here.  “Succinct is better,” said Anne, who suggested fewer demands read from the stage might have been more effective. There’s definite irony in this quote from a Duke Chronicle article, by a student who was asked to be part of those afternoon workshops/panels:

“We felt that you don’t honor activism with panels and things that keep it firmly in the past as an artifact,” Nuzzolillo said. “It’s something that’s viable and visible and present now and in the future.”

Per Anne, among the workshops was one on current organizing involving students from Durham, UNC, and Duke. Among the half-dozen or more Duke activists recommended for the panel, several had conflicts and two dropped out at the last minute—it turns out they were the protesters!

While alumni commemorating the Vigil voiced support afterward for the student protest, a number of alumni—presumably, Anne said, those who weren’t part of the sit-in 50 years ago—turned their back on the students, some of whom were quoted in the paper later as being surprised/hurt by the lack of support for their protest, especially given that it was 50th anniversary of an effective and historic student protest.

I think this is the nature of news and gatekeeping, and I’ll have to think about it this summer—some reports make it sound like these college snowflakes have totally unreasonable demands and unreasonable expectations for no consequences of their protests.  Perhaps we have done students a disservice in this country by how we teach history, if someone thinks they can stage a large protest against a huge establishment and *not* have any consequences.

That said, there actually were no consequences or disciplinary actions taken against the students though there was a lot of uproar and sound and fury at the suggestion that there might be.  So I guess the students won out anyway.

Personally I’m sympathetic to the protesters, especially after the events that happened in the week after their protest.  This is one of their demands:

  1. Create and enforce a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias on campus.

And in response to this news item about a hate speech incident on campus involving racist graffiti at a student apartment complex, the vice president of student affairs tweeted:

To those who believe that colleges and universities should prohibit hate speech, I encourage you to read this:

Freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors.

— Larry Moneta (@Dukestuaff) April 27, 2018

[Larry Moneta deleted his twitter in the time between me writing and posting this blog post]

So if this is the environment around Duke, no wonder the student protesters went a little overboard.  If no one listens when you’re talking at a normal voice, of course you’re going to yell to be heard.  On a side note, in the course of writing this blog post I’ve been quite impressed with the Duke Chronicle!  Here’s a follow-up article about the responses to the tweet.

“I don’t have a plan for a major initiative,” Moneta said. “You want to be careful—you want to react appropriately and not just run around to do things that have no meaning. I think we need to just sit back and think about what is going on that a few people would feel like that was a good way to behave.”

Moneta also added that he doesn’t think the incidents reflect Duke’s student body.
On Policing

At this point you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t think that there’s an issue with relations between the public and the police.  Daniel is a police officer in Durham and had recently gone to Mexico City with three other coworkers as part of a program of the Durham Police Department to understand their community.  He told us that the police had set up a day for several undocumented immigrants to come into the station and talk about their lives, which would have been a first step toward building stronger relationships with the police and the community they serve. But the day before the scheduled event, ICE raided several locations in Durham.  None of the scheduled speakers came to the police department on the planned day, since they were reasonably afraid of getting deported.  Your daily reminder that ICE sucks.

This reminded me of a low-cost initiative pushed by the Austin Police Department (which we recall also had issues; this links to the 2016 traffic stop of the black teacher).  They did “Coffee with a Cop” about quarterly, when you could go to McDonald’s and get free coffee and meet your local police officers.  I went with my neighbor and her five year old to one event, which was pretty packed—we met the captain in charge of our area, and an officer who had two little girls around my neighbor’s age.  I asked her about what she told her daughters about guns, and she emphasized safety to them and told them if they ever saw one out, to go find an adult.  Of course she kept her own guns locked up (this was Texas so pretty much everyone had guns).

On Racism

Monica and Daniel are pillars of the community.  There’s an old N&O article about when the opened their B&B in 1997 (I can’t find it), and how they were only the 26th (ish) black innkeepers in America.  Google tells me there’s around 11,000 B&Bs in the US. There are fifteen inns listed on the African American Association of Innkeepers International.  Even if there are ten times as many inns owned by black people as there are on the website, it’s still a very, very small percentage of the inns in America.

Eventually Monica became the president of the North Carolina Bed and Breakfast Inns Association, a post she held for five years.  They told us about opening the inn, and how the furniture salesman obviously didn’t believe that they were opening an inn, as he visited the inn to “make sure the furniture would fit” before selling it to them.  Anne recalls how Monica told us that one guest walked into the inn, an 8,000-square-foot Colonial Revival home built in the last century by a Liggett & Myers tobacco executive, and refused to stay when she discovered it was owned by African Americans. Another guest asked Daniel to wash his car when he saw the inn owner in the parking lot washing his own car.  In the years since, Monica has been to plenty of conferences and associations, and told us that folks have stopped asking her who she works for and have accepted that black innkeepers exist.  Of the over 17,000 inns in the U.S., less than 1% are owned by black people.  I don’t remember the other stories they told us (note to self, Yen, blog immediately!) but we all know there was racism.

Lots of hats- personal update. Also, the internet.

1 Jul

When I was 17, I interned at Boeing and did something with fiber optic cables and C and a manual.  I don’t remember much.  But that’s the last time I had a 9-5 job.  So now I’m 30 and had to have a little adjustment period over the past month- turns out adults don’t take daily naps!  I feel like adults are doing it wrong, but unfortunately now I’m an adult.  Like, very adult.  Full-time job and two kids adult.

After spending my day writing, I have a harder time writing after work.  I started this blog as a way to write and get out my creative juices while doing math all day, and now I do different things after doing writing all day.  One, I’m trying to get back in shape and eventually hit up triathlons again.

More relevant to you, I’m editing this blog for Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally. The blog is a way to encourage STEM students and professionals to become more active in their local government.  So that’s great!  On Tuesday I’m going to interview someone running for congress!  I just edited a piece by some nuclear engineering students who had a summit at the Texas Capitol, and handed off to someone else an interview with a person doing research for the California Senate (because I feel overwhelmed).  Honestly, editing this blog has made me feel more hopeful about our political status.  The City of Charlotte has all these advisory boards that I could just apply for and join- link here.   Maybe once I’m back I’ll to become more involved in my hyperlocal government, and let you know how it goes.  You could do it too!  Google ‘city name advisory board’.  Let me know how it goes.

On a fun note, I’m doing something totally different and out of my wheelhouse by running the social media for a puzzle hunt I’ve been doing for seven-ish years.  This is the puzzle hunt, it’s super fun and my friends and I have done it in Davis, San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin so far.  This September I’m going to SF again for it.  You can see me trying to be funny at and on facebook.  It’s a lot of behind the scenes reaching out to people individually using email.

My friend Amy and I have been working for a few months on a book chapter for an upcoming volume, so whenever I get news on that I’ll update y’all (our draft is due in August).  It’s about all those women in mathematics conferences we and others have run.  I also visited IAS again this year, just for a day, to talk about these conferences.

Finally, I perhaps unwisely joined the board of the Family Community Association of our toddler’s new preschool.  We’re the FCA instead of the PTA because we want to be inclusive of families that are run by non-parents (grandparents, stepparents, aunts and uncles, etc.)  I think I joined solely because of that radically inclusive reasoning.  I’m in charge of Beautification Day, Bake Sale, and Snack Shack.  I love projects, and also we still have almost no friends in Charlotte, so I think ultimately this is a good idea, but at the moment it’s a little overwhelming with all the other volunteer stuff going on.

Also, I LOVE MY JOB SO MUCH.  I get to read scientific studies and then talk to scientists and then tell other people what’s going on?!  This is the perfect job!  My editor hasn’t assigned me a single story yet, I just pitch tons of cool stuff going on.  It’s SO FUN.  I think this list will update periodically with all my articles.  I also tweet every time I write something.  I’m hoping I can keep this up after the fellowship is over, either as a science writer for somewhere in Charlotte, or as a freelance science writer.

Final rambling thoughts: one of the great things about this AAAS Mass Media fellowship  is the community and camaraderie.  We all met for a few days in Washington for orientation, but now I have an internet group of friends whom I can vent to or find story ideas from or post silly gifs at.  I’ve been to a few weddings where people had a reddit table of internet friends, and at the time I was stupid and stuck-up about it, but now I think reddit is really beautiful.  You can find an internet community, and then you can even go to someone’s WEDDING who you met online and clicked with!  Wow!  I have at least one close friend I met on the internet (through this blog), who also introduced me to some real-life friends.

At orientation, we went around the table saying a controversial opinion, and mine was “I love facebook” because when I had my kids, I felt so isolated and so alone.  Either I was with professional working moms, or grad students who weren’t married nor thinking about kids, or stay at home moms who wanted to do that.  Facebook gave me a place to not feel alone, people who understood playing Candy Crush at 3 am when the baby won’t sleep or the frustration of trying to finish your thesis and realizing daycare is closed.  So, I’m sorry for quietly internally judging weird internet people, for I now am a weird internet person, and I love it.

Reflections on race 4/3: current progress

9 May

I realize that part 3 of my series hasn’t been written yet, but I had a few quick thoughts that I wanted to write as a wrap-up of the series.

To be fair to Duke… actually I can’t really finish that sentence.  Via this series I’ve been engaged with a number of Duke alumni (and my spouse is an alum), who care about social justice issues and press Duke to move forward on progressive fronts, and the school has done things like raise its minimum wage (except for contract workers…)  I can’t claim my alma mater is much better. Here’s a quote from that article:

“This is what happens every day in America,” she added. “These things are unfortunate, they’re disappointing, they’re disheartening, but they’re not shocking anymore.”

But something I find heartening is how much we hear about these events- that they’re dubbed newsworthy at all.  I remember when #MeToo came out, an actress said that she was not amazed that so many people had experienced harassment; she was amazed that anyone cared.  I confess I felt the same way- I just thought that most people have been harassed or assaulted, and that patriarchy and misogyny are just facts like the sky is blue.  Suddenly there was an avalanche of sexual assault stories, and people were reading them and listening and caring and a dialogue was happening!  And then real consequences started happening to perpetrator’s careers!  Yowza!  Yes, people want more consequences, but the fact that ANYTHING has happened is astonishing and encouraging to me.

I feel a similar way about racism- this stuff has always happened.  The difference now is that, for some reason, the media cares, and people read and interact with the media in different, interesting ways now.  There have always been readers and letters to the editor, but now there are hot takes and bloggers (oh hey!) and tweeters and virality.  Bob said this at that first panel- in the decades he’s been involved with activism, he’s never seen such a large, engaged and passionate base.  So I hope that these racist incidents and subsequent conversations are part of a slow, steady, sea change and reckoning of America with its deep seated inequities.  And yes, there will be pushback and backlash, but that’s how change happens.

One counterargument to my hopeful idea is that 24-hour cycles of journalism are now just irresponsible and building echo chambers of ideas.  For instance, Twitter user Osita Nwavenu found this story of a school in Ottawa which cancelled a yoga class once. The cancellation was maybe connected to a single student’s complaint about appropriation.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that this kind of predatory media “fake outrage” turning into real outrage amplifies discord in our conversations.  (Another example: “snowflake” students.  How many students really go to these elite colleges that I’m blogging about?)  But at least we’re having conversations, even if some people are yelling nonsense.  And I think that’s progress.

Honestly, linguistics is a big reason why I have hope and faith.  When I was in high school, “gay” was used as a pejorative all the time.  It still is, but not to the same extent.  Similar with “retarded”, which is being eradicated as part of an incredibly organized and dedicated effort (check out this op-ed from 2008 by Maria Shriver!).  In the fall of 2010 I learned about “The Other” in a sex and genders studies course.  Now I hear “othering” as a verb all the time.  The concept of “privilege” is now so widespread that people who don’t believe in it still have to engage with it and defend those beliefs.  “Intersectional”! “Non-binary gender”! Even “transgender”!  This stuff has left academia and is now in the wide world of radio DJs and Facebook mom groups (yes, these are the main ways I interact with people who do not live in my house).

My pregnancy last year was not great, and having a newborn is also difficult.  A year ago today I was struggling to finish my dissertation and TA a course with a six week old, and was hyperfocused on just my small life.  Now that the baby is sleeping and I have more of my brain back, I’m feeling more engaged and hopeful and excited and energized about our society instead of cynical and defeated and apathetically hopeless.

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.  We will win.

Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop

19 Apr


This is a continuation of a series started in this post, based on the Duke Vigil Commemoration events at Alumni weekend.  MUCH of our historical discussion echoes strongly in today’s society.

The second event we attended was a discussion/workshop led by Professor Peter Wood and Ann Chinn, who founded and leads the Middle Passage Project, which puts historic markers at ports of entry for the twelve million Africans who came through the transatlantic slave trade.  Just look at how many sites they’ve identified, which are definitely not all in the South.

Peter reminded us of how long slavery has lasted in America (see the tweet above).  Coincidentally, Bree Newsome just tweeted about how long black resistance has existed:

Remarkably, Peter said that for the average African-American, their first ancestor in America arrived in 1760.  For the average white American, that date is 1900.  This reminded me of the phrase “all-American,” often used to describe a blonde, blue-eyed sport player.  But black Americans are way more American than white Americans if you go by how long their families have been here (and obviously Native Americans are the most American).

Even though Europeans and especially Brits knew about people of other races since the Roman ages, American racism began as a way to justify slavery, which was seen as necessary for economic development and growth.  As long as races stayed to their own countries, there were enough power dynamics in place to keep a mutual “respect” (might be stretching the word).  But once the transatlantic slave trade started looking good economically, scientists and legal and church officials started claiming that black people weren’t people at all, but another species.  One audience member pointed out that even the Catholic bishops said that baptism couldn’t change your “state”-black people were lesser-than and also not even people, even if they were baptized.

I was definitely confused about the entrenched racism, since Marco Polo was a name I had heard of (I have a remarkably poor grasp on European history).  But this economic explanation made a lot of sense- they didn’t need structural, institutionalized racism before, so hadn’t bothered to set it up.  Around 1650, Peter said that persecution due to and identification with religion was much stronger than with race.  But then Britain got hit by the Plague AND a big old Fire, so they had a shortage of labor.  At the same time, the Royal African Company was founded, and the stage was set for slavery of Africans.  Add in the American colonies and the fire was lit for racism, which we still feel the effects of today.

Our conversation was rambling and far-reaching and I can only hit a few of the points that were discussed.

  • Word choice matters.  Peter used “forced labor camps” instead of “slave plantations,” and “enslaved person” instead of “slave”.  I hadn’t heard either of these but I like them!  “Enslaved person” centers the person rather than the act that happened to them (slavery), sort of like person with schizophrenia or undocumented immigrant center the people vs. “schizophrenic” or “illegal.” Maybe “enslaved person” still isn’t satisfying “people-first language” but I like it better than slave.
  • A strong theme I’ve seen over the past few years that goes hand in hand with racism is white denial.  Ann talked about both positive and negative receptions of the Middle Passage Project- people like to say “that didn’t happen here” or “I’m not part of the problem.”  This reaction reminds me of how people got defensive on my behalf when I called myself racist- definitely a hair-trigger topic.  But we can’t move forward until people start talking about race, like this workshop, and like the communities that have embraced Ann’s project.
  • Did you know about John Punch, considered the first American slave?  There were some blurry times with indentured servitude and free blacks, but from Punch’s trial onward, blacks were slaves.  He ran away with two white indentured servants, and the white guys got their sentences extended for a few years, but he got lifetime slavery.  So officially, legally, skin color was now a reason to treat people differently.  I’d never known about this!
  • Reparations!  People react very negatively to the idea of individuals receiving checks because of wrongs done to their ancestors.  If inter-generational wealth and inter-generational trauma matter, then the American idea of “bootstraps” is bunk.  In a facebook group I’m in, people were asked how they made it to middle class.  Of hundreds of responses, almost all were either (a) helped by their parents/family to buy a house/car or get a job or (b) married someone who was in category (a).  It doesn’t discount the work you do to acknowledge that you’ve had help.  But if my wealth is not my doing, then others’ poverty may also not be their fault, and this radical idea is difficult.
  • Reparations part 2!  If we are to have reparations, they need to be future-thinking, not past-fixing.  For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone went literally door to door for blocks and did early intervention for every baby and every child they could find.  People love babies! Or at least, people love babies enough not to gripe that they shouldn’t be cared for/their parents shouldn’t receive education.
  • We had one #NotAllWhitePeople audience member who said two factually accurate points.  First, that most white Southerners at the time didn’t own slaves but were yeomen farmers, and the rich people were the ones who owned slaves.  Second, that African tribal leaders would trade captive Africans into slavery.  His unstated points, I think, were that not all white people should be blamed for slavery, and we should also blame black people for it.  He left before our discussion addressed his points in an interesting way (guess he didn’t really want to be engaged, but it’s ironic that he engaged us!)  First, that racism became more entrenched as a way to lift up those poor white farmers and make them feel differentiated from enslaved black people.  The institutional racism buffeted up the hierarchical society, as white farmers knew they weren’t on the bottom.  The slow erosion of institutional racism threatens white people in this situation–society is seen as a zero-sum game, so if black people rise, then therefore white people must fall.  My counter to this is that society is not a zero-sum game, and the more we raise people up, the more we all rise.
  • Second, part of why the transatlantic slave trade lasted so long was the lack of feedback loop: people left and didn’t come back to Africa.  One could argue that if tribes had known what was happening in America, they might not have shipped off their rivals.  How much do you have to hate someone to send them and their progeny off to live as slaves in America?  Unknown.  An audience member drew the parallel to the Nazi trains off to Jewish “work camps”-with no feedback, there was little resistance.  It’s hard because this is a counterfactual argument.  I find history difficult for this reason-things just happened they way they did and speculating on how people might have acted were circumstances different does not compute in my mind.

Phew!  Lots to unpack.  You can see why I wanted to write about the weekend; so much happened!  Anyways, this is post two, and hopefully I’ll get a post 3/3 up soon too.

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