Thursday, June 29, 2017

Was that email ethical?

I asked yesterday How would you respond to this email?

I read it carefully and did not reply.
The most striking thing was how generic it was. Although praising me and my work it never mentioned any specifics.
Sometimes when I get student inquiries I send them an email similar to that below.
Thanks for your interest.Please send me a copy of your CV and grade transcript.
I suggest you look at my blog under the label “hydrogen bonds” or "strongly correlated electrons" to get some idea of my current interests.
Also look at  “undergrads” and/or “Ph.D” to get some idea of my views and philosophy on supervision.
I suggest after looking at the blog you then write and send me two paragraphs:
one on why the science interests you and one on your perspective as to my philosophy.
After that, if you are still interested I suggest we then meet in person.
However, I did not send such an email for several reasons. I usually delete generic inquiries. If the student has not bothered to find out or articulate anything specific about me I doubt they are a very good researcher. I also want to work with people who want to work with me, not just anyone. Furthermore, tuesday was busy and I was not going to adjust my schedule for a student who was just showing up on a random day. 
So, I deleted the email.

I was fascinated that the next day I received a follow-up email.

Subject: Debrief Email: Follow-up from "Meeting: Prospective Doctoral Student"

Dear Professor McKenzie,

Yesterday, we, Associate Professor B... and Associate Professor M..., sent you an email inquiring about research opportunities as part of an experimental study on the effects of name identifiers on responsiveness to email communications. Our research is concerned with informal pathways to academic careers and involved random assignment of different sender names to test their effects on response rates from a large number of academics across Australia. Although the email was purportedly from a prospective research student, in reality this deceptive claim was a necessary element of the experimental design and the email was sent by us. We understand that this may cause concern. We are sending this email to reassure you that the data collected are anonymous, the study has the approval of the appropriate ethics committee, the deception was absolutely necessary for the integrity of the research, and only aggregate response patterns across groups, fields, and universities will be studied. 

Our study is titled “An Open Door? Experimental Measurement of Potential Bias in Informal Pathways to Academia.” All of this study’s data will be permanently anonymised, so there will be no identification of you or any individual with any response record. All names and email addresses will be permanently removed from the data and discarded. This study is only concerned with aggregate response rates. No individual response or lack thereof can indicate anything by itself, and your anonymised individual response will not be the subject of our analysis. 

Research involving humans in Australia is reviewed by an independent group of people called a Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). The ethical aspects of this study have been approved by the HREC of the University of Sydney (protocol number 2015/757). As part of this process, we have agreed to carry out the study according to the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) (Updated May 2015). This statement has been developed to protect people who agree to take part in research studies. Because we are only measuring response rates to a single email, it was not possible to request consent prior to your participation. 

We greatly appreciate your participation in this study and will be happy to provide a copy of our report on the study results, once it is ready. We also understand that your response to our email took time and effort to write. We apologise for this. We believe the research we are doing is of considerable importance for improving understanding and informing policy. To receive our report, or if you have any other questions, comments, or concerns please contact  us ... [names and emails]

If you prefer, you may also or alternatively contact the Manager, Ethics Administration, University of Sydney. 

If you are concerned about the way this study is being conducted or you wish to make a complaint to someone independent from the study, please contact the university using the details outlined below. Please quote the study title and protocol number. 

I guess this email generated quite a firestorm because within 5 hours I received the following email.

Subject: Follow up research ethics

Dear Professor McKenzie,
Project Title: An Open Door? Experimental Measurement of Potential Bias in Informal Pathways to Academia

Project No: 2015/757

The University of Sydney has received a number of complaints in relation to this research project and its approval. The University takes these complaints seriously and the issues raised will be looked into by the HREC Executive committee. The project has currently been suspended.

All participants will be informed of the outcome of this review.

If you have further concerns about the way this study is being conducted or you wish to make a complaint to someone independent from the study, please contact the Manager of Ethics Administration using the details outlined below. Please quote the study title and protocol number. 

By the way, the name of my "student" was "Melindah Weelyrah". A Google search showed nothing. In contrast, one of my colleagues received an email from a name which he Googled and found a real web page at U. of Sydney for an apparently real person with relevant research physics interests. He did reply to the email.

Is this ethical? What do you think? Would you have filed a complaint?

Did the strong negative reaction from the "subjects" in the study stem from the "deception" or that they do not like having their time "wasted"?

This reminded me of the Brisbane bus driver racism study that caused a major controversy. The research results were overshadowed by the ethics questions and how the university treated the chief investigator.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How would you respond to this email?

On monday, I received the following email.

Subject: Meeting: Prospective Doctoral Student

Dear Professor McKenzie,

My name is M... W.... I have recently finished my honours degree and I am interested in undertaking doctoral study. The project I have in mind is closely related to your research. I became very familiar with your work while writing my thesis, and am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities with you. 

I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. I will be on campus today, and will also be available for the rest of the week. Any time would be fine with me. Meeting with you is among my highest priorities as I prepare to apply for doctoral studies.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

M.... W...

Tomorrow, I will reveal how I responded and the ensuing firestorm... It is a fascinating story.

But, first I am curious to hear how you would have responded.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Refereeing papers: recent experiences at the coal face

I am not a big fan of the peer review process. Too often it is a superficial ritual that adds little scientific value. Nevertheless, when it does work I think it can be very valuable. Here are some of my recent experiences that I thought were rather positive, and may be marginally interesting to readers.

I was sent a paper by JCP to review. Overall, I liked it but I thought it would benefit from some significant revisions. In a weird coincidence, I was visiting the same institution as some of the authors. I have been recently challenged about whether peer review really should be anonymous [see this discussion of SciPost] and so I took a risk. I signed my report and sent a copy to all the authors and told them I would be happy to meet to discuss the paper. We met and had a nice discussion. However, it was interesting that JCP told me that they had deleted my self-identification as it was against their policy.

I was sent a paper by PRL to review that I (and other referees) took a strong dislike to. The cover letter was also "Interesting". I wrote a concrete critical report. However, for the first time ever, I used the box for "Comments that will only be seen by the Editors". I said the authors had inappropriately used and cited my own work, that the paper was in the class "Not even wrong", and that if PRL published it, PRLs reputation in a certain community would suffer. Maybe I am a coward, but I am glad I was anonymous.

I got a paper I liked to review from JCP. However, the authors did not engage with a whole physics literature that was relevant to the paper and they needed to use it to sharpen their results. I think the final paper will be much better and more interesting.

A recent paper with my postdoc got two critical but constructive reports from PRB. This required some new calculations and comparisons but was much better as a result. Today we heard it was accepted.

I now decline all referee requests from luxury journals. I have limited time and would prefer to invest in journals that I think are making a positive contribution to science.

Have you had any recent positive experiences as a referee or received a helpful report?

Monday, June 19, 2017

The scientific relevance of your hobby

On the one hand to make progress in science you need to focus, work hard, and build your expertise. This leads some to think that it best that they not pursue outside interests and hobbies such as art, music, craft, puzzles, games, ...
However, scientific discoveries, particularly big ones, often involve creativity, serendipity, or thinking outside the box.

I noticed two examples of this recently.
The first was how fascination with a cheap child's toy led to the key idea behind the development of extremely cheap centrifuge [paperfuge] for health diagnostics in the Majority World.

The second example was a New York Times article about a recent paper that argues that key to Pasteur's discovery of molecular chirality was his interest in art.

Another example, is Harry Kroto who shared The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of buckyballs. He credited playing with Meccano as a child as very important in his scientific development.

Can you think of other examples?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why do some people think they can get something for nothing?

This is a small rant. I want to stress that it is not because of anything directly involving me. Rather it comes from things that come across my desk and frustrations that friends and colleagues vent to me.

Here is a sample situation.
Professor A in Department B at University C wants to apply to funding agency D for a joint multi-million dollar research grant with Professor E in Department F at University G. There is also an industrial partner, company H. Obviously, if the application is successful then A to H will all benefit. But now comes the rub. All parties need to commit to contributing something: whether it is time, lab space, matching funds, intellectual property rights, reduced teaching or admin. responsibilities, hiring new people, giving someone a permanent job, equipment, infrastructure, ..... and they need to divide up the grant if they get it.

My frustration and concern are that I encounter cases where one or more of the parties are completely unreasonable about how little they should contribute, if at all. They seem to want something for nothing. Furthermore, they will persist in this even if it means the application won't proceed or has virtually no chance of success. They fail to believe that there will be other applicants who will have strong support and contributions from all the parties involved.

I know that resources are scarce, budgets are tight, and people want to drive a hard bargain. That is not what I am talking about. The real "Art of the Deal" is not the Trump version, but compromising to a win-win situation, not sabotaging the deal because of fantasy and blind selfishness.

Do you encounter situations like this?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How might we teach students to actually think?

Four important goals to me are to teach students:
1. To think.
2. To think like a physicist.
3. To think like a condensed matter physicist.
4. The specific technical content of the course.

The last one is arguably easier than the others.
I also think it is the least important. Others will disagree.
We don't reflect enough on how we might achieve the other goals.
The biggest challenge of improving education in the Majority World is not lack of material resources but changing the culture of rote learning and teaching critical thinking.
[This is highlighted in a NYTimes piece about China and a very funny video about India ITs].

Last week the UQ School of Maths and Physics Teaching Seminar was given by Peter Ellerton who works for the UQ Critical Thinking project.

The slides from a similar talk are here.
In the talk he mostly walked us through the three graphics shown here.
[If you click on the image you can see a high resolution .pdf]

The main value of all this is it puts names, categories, and questions on what I want to do. I found the third graphic the most helpful because it has some very specific questions we can ask students to get them to reflect more on what they are learning and in the process learn to think more critically.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A lucid lecture on the last 50 years of superconductivity

At the weekly condensed matter theory cake meeting today we watched a video of a KITP blackboard talk given by Piers Coleman in 2015.
Superconducting Surprises: five decades of discovery, in both temperature and time!

It is a very nice exposition of the history and some of the key physics.

A couple of minor comments.

Organic superconductors were discovered in 1980 not 1973.

Piers claims that the difference between the thermodynamic entropy of the superconducting and metallic states (determined from integrating the temperature dependent specific heat) is related to the quantum entanglement entropy of the superconducting ground state.
The relationship between entanglement entropy (defined on a pure quantum state (at zero temperature) which is divided in two) and thermal entropies (defined for a bulk system in a mixed state at finite temperature) is an incredibly subtle and complex issue that I don't think is resolved. See for example the discussion in this paper.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The challenge of applied research

Last friday we were fortunate to have David Sholl give a physics colloquium at UQ,
``What Does Quantum Mechanics Have To Do With The Chemical Industry? Reflections On A Journey From Pure To Applied Research.''
Here are the slides.

David has a background in theoretical physics and has been particularly successful at using atomistic simulations to study problems that chemical engineers care about. He is co-author of a book, Density Functional Theory: A Practical Introduction
His three main points in the talk were
  • Applied research is worth doing and is intellectually satisfying
  • Applied research relies on fundamental insights 
  • How to waste time and money doing applied research
The piece of science I found most interesting was the figure below which shows how the calculated self-diffusion constant D of small hydrocarbons in a zeolitic imidazolate framework varies with the size of the hydrocarbon molecule.
Note how D varies over 14 orders of magnitude.

Some of the key physics is that this large variation arises because the diffusion constant is essentially determined by the activation energy associated with the transfer of a molecule through the molecular hole between adjacent pores. When the molecular size is comparable to the hole size, D rapidly diminishes because of steric effects.
It would be nice to have "simple" theory of the correlation.

The figure is taken from the paper
Temperature and Loading-Dependent Diffusion of Light Hydrocarbons in ZIF-8 as Predicted Through Fully Flexible Molecular Simulations 
Ross J. Verploegh, Sankar Nair, and David S. Sholl

Friday, June 2, 2017

The educational value of undergraduate research projects

This past semester I have been supervising two undergraduate research projects. One student is doing a one semester course (1/4 of the students load) for a third year student. The second student has a year long project for a fourth year student (1/2 of their load). I am very happy with how both have gone in terms of their educational value. The amount of research results is of secondary importance to me. Previously, I posted about possible ingredients for a good undergrad project. Both students are working on a simple model for hydrogen bonds. I recommend this because it has an "easy" learning curve and so they can start "doing science" quick. It also has a nice mix of theory and experiment, chemistry and physics.

Things that struck me as particularly valuable include the following very basic things. Some of which relate to basic but important skills.

Seeing calculations to completion. 
In an undergrad problem set or exam the student has limited time and gets partial marks for incomplete or wrong answers. In research you have to keep working on the problem until you have an answer and have checked it enough that you are confident it is the correct answer.

Personal attention.
Each week they get to meet one-to-one with a faculty member and get advice and feedback.

Learning that they really do matter and you have to get them right. This converting between different unit systems.

Writing and debugging code.
Even a short Matlab or Mathematica code.

Reading papers not textbooks.
Gifted students can find textbooks quite manageable and understandable. Papers are in a different league.

Experiencing what research is often like.
Hard. Confusing. Boring. Tedious... But, progress and understanding can be quite satisfying.

Communication skills.
Giving a talk and writing reports, and getting feedback on them.

Job skills.
Time management. Showing up for meetings on time. Writing meeting summaries. Coming up with action plans. Listening to constructive criticism. Working with others.