Wonder and optimism

I just read a book called Wonder. I know it’s been around for a while, and I learned after finishing it that it will be a movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. I am usually not too fast in picking up the latest book. So many good classics to finish first. Anyway.

The book is about a boy, Auggie, who has a facial deformity: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse“. He has been home-schooled until now and the book picks up the story when he is about to start 5th grade. It takes tremendous effort and determination on his part as well as that of his parents, sister and few friends, but by the time the school year is over Auggie is a popular, well-liked kid at his school and goes on to win the “Henry Ward Beecher Medal” that “honours students who have been notable or exemplary in certain areas throughout the school year.” The book starts out as a complete tear jerker, sorry for using that word but I cried and cried through the first part as Auggie was settling into his school life. But after about two thirds of the way into the book, everything starts to turn sunny. Auggie makes friends, his schoolmates bond with Auggie and with each other, everyone (except the one villain whose story is appended to the end of the book) becomes understanding, empathic and friendly. Even Auggie’s sister makes her big break onto the stage when her former-bff-current-enemy gives up the role on opening night. All cheer, optimism. A Hollywood ending. Happy and well adjusted is one thing but a medal at the end? Come on. I smell screenplay. Let’s get some ice cream.

I am happy that things turned out OK for Auggie. He is a sweet, likeable kid and I rooted for him from start to finish. The character is fleshed out in detail, and other characters take turns throughout the different chapters so we get to find out about their perspective, too. The sister was my favorite character, she is supportive but has a bitter and angry side to her. So the character development is powerful, the premise is interesting and the story is captivating as it unfolds. But I was utterly disappointed by the anticlimatic ending.

The story is a sad one, mandibulofacial dysostosis and cleft palate are two disorders that can (and do) cause severe health issues for children. It is not easy to have this disorder nor to be in the same family/school with someone who has it. Why would the author turn everything around to make sure EVERYONE in the book is happy and cheerful at the end and that the one villain decides to change schools? There are good days and bad days; not only for them, but for everybody. Why does everybody need to be happy all the time? Why is it not ok to be sad sometimes?



Academic and mama

I am a member of a group called “Academic Mamas”. Members are anywhere from seasoned mamas of grown children to pregnant mamas, from PhD students to tenured professors. These academics ask for breastfeeding advice, applaud and “like” tenure announcements, give book recommendations on handling baby tantrums as well as teenage tantrums, celebrate births, grants and papers and console each other for miscarriages, tenure denials and paper rejections. I am proud to be an academic mama but it’s hard hard hard work. The only way we can get through it is by supporting each other and sticking together.

My first support as an academic mama is my mother, who is also an academic mama. She made sure I had no doubt in my mind that I could do it all. “Doing it all” or “having it all” are phrases I hate because of the male dominated understanding of being a perfect mother and outstanding faculty/professional at the same time. To me, doing it all means living through life with some balance such that your personal life and career both make you happy. It’s easier to write than to do it (who am I kidding, it’s next to impossible). First of all, there is intense guilt. The guilt that you don’t get to spend time with your child if you go to work and you don’t get to work on your manuscript if you play with your child. I remind myself to be a “good enough mother”. I remind myself that academic life is a marathon and not a sprint. But sometimes that’s not enough to overcome the guilt. Sometimes the work load (at home and at work) is so overwhelming that you choke. Sometimes you need someone else to cheer you on. (And no one is better at that than my mother.) Cue everybody hurts by REM. Take comfort in your friends. Your academic mama friends are your best line of support here. Make sure you find those mamas that will understand, support and help you. They are there. We are here.

My second biggest support as an academic mama was my graduate advisor. She is not a mama in the strictest sense but she was nurturing, caring and protective. So, an academic mama. I had my first child during grad school. She let me work from home through my difficult pregnancy, my son’s premature birth and then weeks of recovery. In a country where maternity leave is several months long this would not be surprising. But I was in the US and most of my friends had to go back to work 6 weeks after delivery. I would have had to quit my PhD if that were the case. My advisor would not let me drop out of the race. It took me about a year but I was back on track and even picked up speed as I learned to manage life as an academic mama. 

We are natural multitaskers. This brings me to my third line of academic mama support; collaborator academic mamas. I did not realize it until recently but all of my collaborators are also mothers. Our children get sick, we are called to school events, children have spring breaks, they need new shoes, or we are just tired after a weekend of birthday parties. Taking care of children take up a lot of time, energy, mental effort. We know this. We understand each other. We understand that time is precious. Our meetings are short and sweet. Our phone calls are brief. Our messages are terse. But that’s ok. We know when we need to pick it up when the other academic mama needs to hand over the baton. The roles are sometimes fluid but never unfair. At the end of the day, everybody chips in. Not to say there is no resentment. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there is no one to pick up that baton because everybody’s too busy and that’s bad. But when you need to rush to your child’s dr appointment and your academic mama collaborator submits the grant application for you, you remember why you can only work with other academic mamas. So just keep on trying mama. 

City girl

I was born and raised in Istanbul, I have strolled on Istiklal, taken sea side walks in Bebek, spent endless hours on dolmus, minibus, ferry, eaten simit several sticks full (simitcis carry their simits on sticks) bought silver in Kapalicarsi, bought my first bike in Hasim Iscan Gecidi, listened to music in AKM, Harbiye acikhava, watched movies in Atlas, enjoyed mucver in Karakoy lokantasi. But am I a true Istanbullu?

When I was living in Indiana, I used to subscribe to the New Yorker. I read every page of it cover to cover. The goings on about town section provided me with a much needed whiff of city air in my quiet and poor grad student life. That was also when the Sex and the City was big. I missed my Istanbul life terribly and I was living the city life vicariously through these two outlets. Then, I visited New York City for three days, one Labor Day weekend. New York City was breathtaking with its beautiful architecture, lush parks, wide sidewalks, and impeccably dressed men and women. Three days are too short to get to know a city but this much was clear to me: New York was no match for Istanbul.

Istanbul harbors the beautiful and the ugly all at the same time, in the same picture frame. A true mosaic of culture, culinary experience, style, music, background; Istanbul is unlike any other city with “character”. There is no true Istanbullu because the city is not only huge in size but also has tens of layers. The historical layers of Istanbul were depicted beautifully by Betul Sayin in her book “5 Cocuk 5 Istanbul”. But the multilayered nature of Istanbul is not only due to its history. The essence of the city is too complex to be captured by one aspect. Many songs on Istanbul desribe her as a complicated woman. Hard to live with. Hard to be away from it.

I used to believe the one thing that binds all Istanbullus together is our desire to be by the sea side. Yet, there are many people that don’t leave their inland neighborhood, that have never strolled by Bogaz. How can this be? How can you stay away from its beauty? Are those people not Istanbullu?

Even though the older residents claim ownership of the city, it belongs to the newcomers, too, as they bring in their culture, language, food and music. Istanbul’s attraction is that it is a mosaic rather than a blending of colors. There is only one word for it and that is Istanbul. I am an Istanbullu.

“Now we are at the heart of chemistry”

These are my favorite lines out of all the books I have read. They are from Atkins and de Paula’s “Physical Chemistry” book, Reaction Dynamics Chapter. The book is a fascinating read (for physical chemistry students and instructors), it is easily accessible and these lines make it high literature. By the time you get to this chapter, you have discussed equilibrium thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and you have started thinking about molecules, why they behave the way do and how their molecular behavior results in properties you observe in the macroscopic world. But you have not gotten to the heart, yet.

My favorite teaching moment is when I say these lines in class. Students have come in, I have waited for them to settle, I have made eye contact with several of them that are waiting for their friends to be quiet. I say “Now we are at the heart of chemistry” and pause for dramatic effect. I know some eyes roll. But some of the students are intrigued. “Can you imagine being at the HEART of CHEMISTRY?”. I remind them of the energy levels, the partition function (“what was that?” “the number of accessible energy states”) and tell them that knowing the partition function will let us know whether two molecules will react or not. That knowledge is powerful. It takes us from single molecules, “bonds being ripped apart” to all the reactions we see around us and to life.  Transition state theory, which explains reaction mechanisms, is one of the hardest topics to grasp in physical chemistry. But, I remind you, it takes us to the heart and once you get to the heart it is almost like magic except that it is all rooted in theory.

I think I miss teaching.



Reading is solitary. Readers are not. Readers find each other. I just joined a book club. The idea is similar to all other book clubs (I assume). You read a book, and then you meet at a member’s house and discuss the book for about an hour.

We used to have journal club every other week when I was a graduate student. The idea there was to share the latest findings with fellow group members. Each member was responsible for one journal and would bring 2-3 interesting articles to share with the group. This was great to keep the group up to date on the latest articles and there would always be one or two articles that were really interesting. Here is what happened though: 1. “Oh I should read this paper.” 2. File under “must read”. 3. Forget that paper exists 4. Read that paper if and when you need it for your thesis/paper/research and not remember it from journal club. A more ideal journal club would be one where everybody comes to the table having read one interesting article in detail. The keyword here is detail. Depth is what science is all about. You need breadth, so keep up the journal club. But read that one article, discuss it, dissect it in detail. Go over its outline, the language, the flow. What is strong about it, what makes it a good paper, what makes it a bad paper? What is the major contribution, is it significant, is it interesting, would you like to continue that research, if so how?

If there is one occupation in which reading should take more time than the occupation itself, that occupation is writing. A writer must read more than she writes. I just made that up and not because I am a bookworm or an avid scientific article reader. In fact, I am not, and to be perfectly honest, I have not been for some time. Too much on my plate. Life got in the way. But low reading, I found, is a surefire recipe for my well to dry up. I cannot write. I cannot write because I have not been reading enough. (Boy am I glad my blog is hidden in obscurity and my students are not reading these words.) The one thing this sabbatical is helping me get back to is reading. All reading. Reading books, reading fiction, reading scientific articles.

I just read about the daily habits of wealthy people and it turns out they do a lot of reading, too. I don’t buy it. There are many readers that don’t make money. I know that the fact that those wealthy people read a lot is simple selection bias. But it gives me hope to hear that readers are cool. Reading is cool. I really look forward to more reading this year.

Children running barefoot

She is watching the forest

observing the moss grow

   and the ants move

Oh the ants move so fast

and the moss is so slow

Like a wise woman

The moss is patient,

waiting until a squirrel tail or

            a barefoot child running or

            a bird bouncing

touches it

Like a wise woman

The moss is giving

as it absorbs water from the air

and keeps the forest humid

Like a wise woman

The moss is the same from one generation

            to the next


It looks the same to the girl

the next day she visits the pond

with the rock

with moss on it

as she observes the moss grow

But the moss remembers other little children

and the squirrel tail that touched it

            decades ago

The moss is a new moss for having

            seen the girl with her new


And the moss is the same

            like a wise woman

Visiting museums with children

I love visiting museums with my children. I love to see them get interested in or sometimes get bored by art. They call it like it is. If they don’t like the colors in a painting, they say it. If they think a sculpture has a funny shape, they say it. If they like a work of art, they stand before it to examine its every little detail. At the end of a museum trip, they pick their favorite piece of art and usually their reasons for choosing that piece are completely unexpected but never random. My whole attitude toward visiting museums with children is that it is a long term project to build lifelong museum visitors so I try to take it slow and let them flourish on their own time.

The key, for my family, to visiting museums is to sandwich the visit between some active (even better: outdoor) time because the biggest challenge is the fact that they need to be quiet during the visit. Also, as with all activities, rested and fed children are better behaved. A perfect time for a museum visit is right after breakfast. Museum cafeterias usually have terrible food so I usually plan the visit to be after breakfast and then we can leave the museum and have lunch at a real restaurant.

Children are natural artists, they express their emotions by drawing lines, dots, faces, houses as soon as they are able to hold a pencil. I always carry some paper and crayons or colored pencils with me. After some time, we find a seat in front of a piece of art they like and they draw for a while. Different museums have different rules, for example The Met allows sketching in pencil only.

I find guided tours very useful for school age children, but the guided tour should be a short one. Children also seem to love the audio guides. They can’t really get it to work the way it should but they love gadgets, so why not!

Another favorite is the activities designed for kids. The kids get to hear about the artist, and then take inspiration from the artist’s work to create their own art. This lets them get more engaged with the art and when they visit the museum they have fun finding the art work in the exhibit. At some museums, there is a treasure hunt and that’s fun for the kids. The treasure hunt diverts attention away from the art and toward the game but visiting museums is a skill that grows slowly so it’s great to have fun as you are acquiring this skill. If a museum does not have children’s activities, I invent games. This is one of my go-to, open ended questions: “At the end of the visit, I will ask you about your favorite piece of art and why”. Or if the museum is too big, I ask them to choose one piece of art in a room and tell me why they like it or they try to draw something similar to it.

My children’s favorite part of the museum is the museum store. I want to believe that the souvenirs they get from the museum store will a. remind them of some of the art they just saw, b. support the museum, and c. be original and more “artsy” than something they might find elsewhere. The item becomes a conversation piece later: “Remember our visit to the …?”. The rule for my children is that they can only visit the store after they’ve seen the art.

Even if your children are used to visiting museums, not all museum visits end up all fun and happy. Children may suddenly decide that the visit is over by starting to run around or by refusing to go into any more galleries. If you paid good money for the entrance ticket, you try to pull them together, but that rarely works. At those times, I take a deep breath, and just end the visit rather than deal with a full on tantrum in a quiet museum. Better still,  I keep the visit short and we leave the museum before they are burnt out. They are, after all, children, they get tired from too much stimulation, and they need time and practice to build up their stamina. But what to do about the ticket prices? Here are this mother’s solutions to building stamina without burning money on entrance fees:

  • Start with free exhibits. All of the national museums in DC are free and we spent one whole week going in and out of those museums. It was fantastic. There was something for everyone and plenty of space for kids to run around in between visits.
  • Most museums have free admission once a week. Those days are usually more crowded than others, but museums are never too crowded so why not check out some of the art on those days?
  • Go 1 hour before the museum closes when they usually let you in for free or for reduced prices.
  • My favorite is Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. The grounds are lovely and one accompanying adult entrance is free with one child. This is the best practice to get parents to bring their children to the museum.
  • You can treat walking around the old city as a museum visit. You can stop and point at interesting buildings and architectural details while you are out and about. This is a free activity that starts to engage your child in arts and builds their stamina toward long museum visits.

The following also seem like great ideas but I am never that organized (and I don’t see the point): 1. Pack some lunch to prolong the visit (I always plan ahead for a sit down lunch, though. I have some snacks and water, too.)  2. Read a book about the museum/artist before the visit with your children (Isn’t it more fun to discover art with no bias?) 3. Prepare ahead a full itinerary of the visit to maximize/optimize it (The information desks are very helpful at pointing to “important” works, if necessary. Also see my previous point. It’s more fun to discover the art work that’s “important” to you at your own pace).

My goal, for whatever reason, is to visit the Louvre with my children one day. I was exhausted from too much stimulation when I visited it (without children). That’s a full museum day and even adults need strong legs and a sharp mind for that visit. I hope to apply some of the lessons I have learned about visiting museums with my children at that visit. I am sure more coffee will also help.





Swan Lake and AKM

This week we went to the Zurich Opera House to see The Swan Lake. Elena Vostrotina danced as Odile/Odette and Alexander Jones was Prince Siegfried. The principals had good technique. The orchestra (Philharmonia Zurich) and the corps de ballet (Ballet Zurich Company) were very good, the costumes were very well designed and the lighting was truly masterful. The “swanness” of the four ballerinas and the other swan dancers was quite convincing. Yet, the magic of the Swan Lake did not come through. There was a lot of “acting” and miming but not enough conveying of emotion. The gesturing (miming drinking, pointing to the ring finger as a sign of marriage, the drunk old teacher) was an unnecessary addition to the choreography. The principals lacked passion for their roles and for each other in their respective roles.

A few words about going to the ballet at the Opera House. The building is very ornate, with a beautiful exterior and an even prettier interior. On the other hand, the hall is very small, as is the stage, which does not have enough room for a grandiose production that requires space (such as The Swan Lake with many crowded scenes). The scene for the duet between Siegfried and Odile could definitely have used more space. The pas de deux had to be performed framed by the other dancers and hence was not a private moment between Siegfried and Odile.  Also, Siegfried was not able to leap through the stage in his grand jetes and could make only so many turns in that cramped space.

I am but a chemical engineer, with no training whatsoever on music; how can I even begin to comment on a performance? Maybe, I am completely off base in this review, but I trust myself because I had a very good education watching incredible performances on the grand stage of AKM. This was the third or fourth time I saw the Swan Lake; the others were all at Ataturk Cultural Center, lovingly known as AKM for Istanbul’lu (Istanbul resident) music and art enthusiasts. I wish I could give you a link for its website but alas it is left to rot since 2008. (For a Turkish article about the current condition of AKM, please click here.) AKM is my childhood and my youth. This is where my parents and my friends’ parents took us for our first concert, our first opera, our first play. The repertoire for the regular Friday night and the Saturday morning concerts was always amazingly complex week after week. One of my mom’s friends took me to the Saturday morning concerts for a few years. Tickets were hard to find, you had to wait in line to get good seats. I listened to great Turkish virtuosos as well as world renowned musicians and conductors at those concerts. The acoustics in the grand hall are said to be inferior but that’s where I and many other Istanbullus first listened to many important pieces and our ears learned to hear and love that beautiful music in that sound atmosphere. As is appropriate for a culture that thrives on meeting and having food together, AKM had very spacious foyer areas, too. You would run into friends and have profiteroles during intermissions. AKM was a true congregation point for the arts; there we waited in line to get tickets for the Film Festival or the Music Festival or the Jazz Festival. (Well, you could not get the tickets straightaway, you first had to fill out a paper form to sign up to get the tickets.) AKM was a meeting point for us in my teenage years. In that age before cell phones, that was an easy meeting place. Whoever showed up would just wait in front of the ticket office. It was Ataturk Cultural Center and it was a center that attracted the Istanbul resident both for culture and for being “central”.

Then, in 2008 AKM was closed to be refurbished. Since then, every few years, one government official or another talks about plans for renovation. Latest photos tell a different story; only the pole remains of the steel staircase that once was elegance and modernism at the same time. AKM took center stage one last time during the Gezi protests. The glass panel exterior was decorated with flags and banners. One protest was that of the “standing man“, who stood for several hours looking at AKM. Others joined his silent protest. As they stood, the glass panel silently reflected back the image of the Taksim square and the protesters.

My favorite Siegfried remains as Oktay Keresteci and my favorite Odile/Odette is still Hulya Aksular. This duo was all emotion. Oktay Keresteci would soar across the grand stage turning and turning and Hulya Aksular with her slender body was both graceful and powerful. There was no hesitation in their steps and their command over their motions as well as their trust in each other were clear. I watched them at AKM. Where else?

I know, I am romanticizing a time gone by. In the 1990s, Istanbul had a lively arts and music scene. Istanbul is still “happening” with many events, but the absence of a grand opera house is hurting the cultural scene. Now you have to seek out new venues. Back then, you could always count on finding a performance at AKM. If you were a student, you could listen to an incredible concert or watch a world class ballet for less than 10 dollars. The AKM was a point of entry for all income levels to begin to love and appreciate music and the arts. Now, I cannot take my children to AKM for their first concert. Now, AKM is in ruins, and that time has passed and that Istanbul is gone.

Lab Girl

Lab Girl is a memoir by the plant scientist Hope Jahren. Hope Jahren sure can write. Indeed, her website is https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/. Not only can she write, you can tell when you read the book or her blog or her twitter feed that she must. She is a superstar communicator. You should stop reading this and go and read the book. But, here goes…

Writing. Most of a scientist’s day is spent writing. Writing grant proposals, writing journal articles, writing references for students. It is a lot of work. You don’t just write, you edit manuscripts written by students and colleagues. I’m telling you; it’s a LOT of work. Yet, some scientists can’t get enough. They write blog posts, they write popular science articles and some even write books. I wish even more scientists would write for the public. The scientific approach applied to world affairs, to politics, and to policy formulation would be such a welcome change from all the hand waving, the populism that drives hate speech, and the fake news we are experiencing today.

Wit. Hope Jahren is a funny and witty author. She is, nonetheless, dead serious about her research and will not tolerate any horsing around. She has a hard time in the lab as well as in life and she shares all of her troubles with us in a most heartfelt way. Her description of her failures are both self deprecating and encouraging. I felt like she wants to make sure the reader loves the science through the witticism despite the hardship.

Grit. While reading this book, I could not help but think about my favorite (fiction) book in the past 5-10 years: The Signature of All Things. Yes, it is by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray and Love fame. The Signature of All Things is an epic saga about Alba, who is a moss scientist. Like any moss scientist, Alba is patient. Alba has grit. Alba is in it for the long haul. Not only is Alba curious and asks questions, but she also knows that she must wait until all questions are answered. Alba perseveres. Sometimes, I think this is a trait of women scientist. We nurture our science. Hope Jahren is very patient, too. She says at the beginning of Chapter 8 “Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time.” (This chapter is worth the admission price so I will ask you to go and read the book again.) To make sure her students learn to be patient, too, her first assignment to them is to label empty vials. Then, with Bill (read the book), they tell the new recruit that he did it all wrong. She sees two ways out for when you run into major obstacles: Come back the next day and start over. Or you can work an extra hour longer and “stay in the moment of what went wrong”. Clearly, Hope Jahren always chooses the second option and wants her students to do the same.

Science. It’s all about the science, you know. When all is said and done, Hope Jahren is a plant scientist. Her main goal in life and in writing this book is to understand (and explain) how plants communicate, how they grow, why they grow, how they sometimes don’t grow and wait and survive, why they sometimes don’t grow. The how and the why keep Hope Jahren going. The how and the why keep all of us going. Once you start asking the how and the why, you are a scientist. She says it best: “What comes first is a question, and you’re already there”.