Sunday, March 18, 2018

Demystifying the Expert: Dr. Anthony Tongen

Once again,  we bring you a summary (including spoiler alert) of the latest  Demystifying the Expert event.  To remind everybody, this program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and comedians from JMU’s very own New & Improv’d, who attempt to...  “demystify the expert.”  Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work.   This program is produced and hosted by our own Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa.  Podcasts for this and previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here on SoundCloud!

           On November 16, 2017, the Demystifying the Expert event took place at Taylor Down Under, in Madison Union, on JMU campus.  Dr. Anthony Tongen from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Associate Dean for the College of Science and Math at JMU, was the guest expert for the night, a departure from the usual line-up of experts in science fields.  Here is a direct link to this show. 

            The members of JMU’s New and Imrpov’d who made us laugh out loud on this date were: Ethan Schulze, sophomore SMAD major, Shelby Imes, a senior journalism and English major, and Drew Holt, a junior marketing major.

            The first game that the comedians played in order to determine what the expert studied was "twenty questions." Each comedian took turns asking Dr. Tongen yes or no type questions to help them deduce what area of mathematical research he studies.  After many a question, Dr. Tongen finally revealed that his studies fall in the realm of what would be called mathematical biology.

            With some more open-ended questions, we found out that Dr. Tongen's work with modelling and data fitting with various populations like those of lemur populations in Madagascar or guanaco populations in Chile.  He uses many equations and variables to model the population dynamics through many years, with the help of computers and codes.

            With the second game, which was the fill-in-the-blank game, the comedians guess words that complete titles of popular science articles that relate to Dr. Tongen’s research.

            All three articles were interesting, with 
the most intriguing and seemingly random blank to the comedians being ‘Robin Hood.’  In the context of the title, ‘Robin Hood effects’ on motivation in math,’ Dr. Tongen explained how different groups of students reacted to programs implemented by schools to increase the study of mathematics.  The name ‘Robin Hood,’ as he clarified, referred to how increased attitudes towards learning math resulting from the program were seen in schools where students’ parents did not view math as important as those who did.  The term ‘Robin Hood’ here denoting the redistributive nature of more increases being seen by those who did not see math as important when compared to those who had already regarded math as important.

            The jargon game that followed, during which the comedians guess what certain acronyms mean, or discuss the meaning of terms that are used in daily life but have a different meaning in the expert’s field. Here, the comedians did well in guessing the more technical meanings of the Dr. Tongen’s jargon, such as "normal," "elementary," and "well-defined."

            Finally, the audience got to learn more about the Dr. Tongen outside of his life as a mathematician with the Two Truths and a Lie game. During this game, the comedians and audience found that, while Dr. Tongen might not have been kidnapped at one point by the Mexican cartels, he did have to skirt around them during his time there researching monarch butterflies.  In addition, they learned that he was and remains active in advocating for minorities in mathematics, with some interesting research producing interesting titles such as ‘Does gravity gossip weigh heavily on your local area network?’

            The final (and most improv'd) event of the night was the skit in which the comedians played out an imagined day in the life of the research lab of Dr. Tongen with some mandatory quotes from movies relating to mathematics such as A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and Good Will Hunting. The skit involved a lot of references to trips in Mexico, some emotional heartache in a struggle for Dr. Tongen’s affections, and a heartwarming resolution for all parties.  It was a terrifically humorous final recap of all that the audience, and the comedians, had learned in a whimsical, impromptu scene.

            We look forward to seeing you at the next, and final Demystifying the Expert event for the spring semester at 7:00 PM on Thursday, March 29, 2018, in a brand-new location at Pale Fire Tap Room in Downtown Harrisonburg!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Demystifying the Expert: Dr. Gabriel Niculescu

Demystifying the Expert happened and delighted us again, and the expert, together with the hosts (Constantin and Feitosa) as well as the panel of comedians, delivered what they promised: a great night of laughter and learning.  To remind everybody,  this program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in a certain field of science, and comedians from JMU’s New & Improv’d, who attempt to “demystify the expert.” Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work.   Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events have been discussed herehereherehereherehere, and here.

            On February 8, 2018, the Demystifying the Expert event hosted Dr. Gabriel Niculescu, a nuclear physicist.  The members of JMU’s New and Imrpov’d who (we can say hilariously and successfully) demystified were:  Diego Salinas, a senior theater and modern foreign language double major, Michael Mathis, a junior SMAD major, and Mairin Duffy, a sophomore SMAD major.

            The first game aimed at determining what the expert studied via no more than twenty questions aimed at yes or no answers from the expert. Each comedian took quite a few turns asking the Dr. Niculescu before they discovered that he is a nuclear physicist.  As you can see from the pictures, Dr. Niculescu had a blast.

            The second game was the fill-in-the-blank game, during which the comedians guess words that complete titles of articles that relate to Dr. Niculescu’s research.

            The first title was “Big Bang machine could destroy ____,”  and the comedians were quickly able to guess that the missing word for this title was “Earth.”  The next article title was in relation to the Higgs Boson, which Diego Salinas was very excited to know the answer to, almost as soon as the question was asked.

            With the next game, the JAG (jargon and acronym) game, the comedians guessed  and discussed what: baking, swimming, PID, RICH, and SLAM mean in the context of nuclear physics.  Check out the podcast for these illuminating discussions. 

            Finally, with one of the funniest and most full of surprises section of the show, the audience got to learn more about the expert outside of his life as a scientist with the Two Truths and a Lie game. During this game, the comedians and the audience learned that Dr. Niculescu is a certified breeder of guppies and has won the guppy World Champion twice and received the runner-up award four times. They also learned about his brother who is a famous actor and musician in Romania, and about the math and physics high school that the expert attended while growing up.

            The night ended with the most awaited part, the skit in which the comedians played out a scenario in the life of Dr. Niculescu, which involved a lot of references to karaoke and a bar, and earned the comedians plenty of laughs from the audience.  Fun and fulfilling times we all had again!


Monday, January 22, 2018

The 2018 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

The attendees of the 2018 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at University of Virginia

The 2018 regional APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) was held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA and was held from Friday, Jan 12th – Sunday, Jan 14th.  The JMU Physics & Astronomy students attended the event were: Natali Bushamani (’18), Yvonne Kinsella (’18), Katie Porter (’18), Alle Goodis (’19), Maeven Luedke (’20), Sloane McNeill (’20), Nicole Voce (’20), Mary Ogborn (’21), and Aliyah Hall (’21).   Dr. Iona Niculescu, also from JMU, was a member of Sunday’s panel on undergraduate research.

The weekend opened on Friday night with a speech from the University of Virginia’s provost, Dr. Thomas Katsouleas, followed by the first keynote talk given by Prof. Elizabeth H. Simmons, who is the Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at UC San Diego.

On Saturday, the day began with lab tours that the attendees chose from which include the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, The Radiation Oncology Center at the UVA Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, as well as various labs related to materials science and engineering, theoretical physics, and experimental physics.

In the late morning, various short presentations were given by many women during which they discussed their own paths in physics and how gendered issues made an impact on them. The speakers included: Prof. Gail Dodge, the Dean of A&S at Old Dominion University, Dr. Cynthia Keppel, the leader of Jefferson Lab Halls A & C, Prof. Christine Nattrass, assistant professor at University of Tennessee, Prof. Petra Reinke, associate professor of materials science at University of Virginia, Dr. Stefania Perrucci, a business woman from Philadelphia, and Prof. Fulvia Pilat, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Lab.

Dr. Patricia Burchat, the national keynote speaker
for CUWiP 2018.
In the afternoon, the national conference keynote speaker’s presentation was livestreamed to all Dr. Patricia Burchat, The Gabilan Professor of the Physics Department at Stanford University, spoke about her life and research. Her bio in the event program explains how she is a first-generation high school graduate from a small area of Canada that didn’t even have a high until she started the ninth grade. She is part of an international team of scientists that are preparing for analysis of data from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. 

The second keynote speaker for the UVa conference, Prof. Shohini Ghose. Her bio from the even program states that her research examines the laws of quantum physics for how they can be harnessed to transform computation and communication, and that she and her colleagues made the first ever experimental observations of a connection between chaos theory and quantum entanglement. She is also the founder of Laurier University’s Research Centre for Women in Science (WinS).
The break-out session on career paths in physics

Sunday consisted of multiple breakout sessions. Attendees chose three of the twelve to attend. The topics included: science policy, undergraduate research, APS Step-Up for Women, Resilience, What is graduate school like?, career paths in physics, work/life balance, mental health, professional skills/communication/negotiation, solidarity/mentorship/sponsorship/allies, brilliance, and  impostor syndrome.

Overall, the conference was a positive experience for the undergraduates who attended in its ability to inform students of some of the gendered issues in the physics world and spread awareness of the resources that exist for dealing with those issues, to expose students to exciting research in various areas of physics, and to help students find resources for developing professional skills to give them the tools they need to excel.