Are PhDs a Waste Product?

Christmas letter 2007

From the vantage point of being able to look back at the year 2007, I can honestly say that this year of change has been a good one. In deciding between several job offers, I had to evaluate my career goals as well as my personal ambitions. Eventually, I decided to accept the offer from Washington University in St. Louis — on the basis that if I were a high school senior deciding on a college to attend, that I would choose WashU. I liked the emphasis on quality research and teaching, the friendly Midwestern small-school atmosphere in a medium-sized city, and the diverse political and cultural viewpoints found on campus. I can definitely say that all of these first impressions have been realized in my first semester here, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my career in academia so far.

What I’ve enjoyed the most about teaching are the challenges of explaining difficult concepts clearly, the twice-weekly opportunities to “perform on stage” and overcome my fears of public speaking, and the joys of mentoring students. What I hope to improve upon next semester is to better balance the time and mental energy I devote to teaching versus research. I’ll be teaching a graduate course on computational chemistry of molecular and nanoscale systems, and hope to better integrate my teaching and research.

While I like St. Louis very much, I do miss many things about DC, so I’ll end with a roughly chronological list of some of my most cherished memories from the past year:

  • Listening to a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, performing Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”
  • Watching the snow fall while preparing my job talks (but I could have probably done away with the air travel snags)
  • Two words (or, I guess, four): Peking Cheers and Dogfish Head
  • Viewing downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River from the top of the Arch
  • Meeting my hero, Dr. Francis Collins at the AAAS, and getting a copy of his book signed
  • Listening to a concert by The Decemberists and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  • Driving around the Capitol Beltway (all ~60 miles of it)
  • Eating ice cream and fruit smoothies on the front porch while discussing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  • Driving halfway across the country
  • Working on my first NSF grant proposal one day from 4 pm until 10 am (and hearing my first fire alarm on campus that morning)
  • Singing alto (for practice) in the WashU Messiah sing-along

Merry Christmas and a good night to all!

The “other” big city in Missouri

This post marks a break from ironchef’s regularly scheduled programming, and instead, features the return of flashbuzzer. So, in my brother Caleb’s own words:

Since neither Cynthia nor I had ever been to Kansas City, we decided to drive across the state and check it out. We took I-70, which winds through some barren stretches of Missouri. Along the way we crossed the mighty Missouri River at least twice. We also saw several signs that read “Go Tigers Beat KU” along with numerous cars with stuffed tiger tails hanging over their license plates, which continuously reminded us of the Kansas-Missouri showdown that weekend in Kansas City. It turned out that the only sizable city between St. Louis and Kansas City is Columbia.

When we reached Kansas City we decided to cross briefly into Kansas so that we could claim to have set foot there. After nearly getting lost in a maze of freeways in downtown Kansas City, we finally crossed the border. Originally we had planned to go to a Starbucks shop on the Kansas side of the border, but we decided to go to a Target store so that Cynthia could buy a new colander for her kitchen. It was a bitterly cold day, so that hindered my appreciation for Kansas. This was partially offset by the friendliness of the checkout lady at the Target store.

After we bought the colander and set foot in Kansas, we drove back to the Missouri side of the border. Our first stop was the famous Arthur Bryant’s BBQ restaurant at 18th and Brooklyn. We were greeted by a fairly long line that stretched far outside the front door; there were a number of Missouri fans in the line and they sounded confident about their chances of beating Kansas. Since the line moved fairly slowly, we were able to peruse the numerous wall-mounted photographs of famous people who had eaten there over the years. Cynthia was able to discern that the restaurant was best known for their ribs, so we got a combo of burnt ends and short ends along with a stack of fries. Let me just say that it was an incredibly tasty meal; in some ways, I appreciated it more than the BBQ in Texas. The sweet sauce was really nice, though neither of us cared much for the original sauce.

We then drove to the National World War I Museum (also known as the Liberty Memorial). Since we didn’t have much time before the museum closed for the day, we decided to skip the Exhibit Hall and the Observation Tower, which offers a great view of downtown Kansas City (apparently our tickets for those two buildings don’t expire until we use them). We visited the main museum hall, which we accessed by walking on a thick glass floor over a field of flowers. Cynthia decided to start by reading through a large free-standing timeline of the Great War, while I tried to go through as many of the special exhibits as possible. Since I was already somewhat well-versed in the European theater of the conflict, I wanted to learn more about fighting in other theaters. I was not disappointed as I read about the Japanese capture of Tsingtao from the Germans, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s valiant stand in modern-day Tanzania and the British drive to capture Kut-al-Amara from the Ottoman forces. I was also impressed by the exhibits on trench warfare, which included some models of World War I trenches that featured audio recordings of battlefield sounds to create the appropriate ambiance. I ended up spending so much time in the European section (1914-17) of the main museum hall that I had to hurry through the American section (1917-19) before the museum’s closing time. I got to briefly peruse numerous front-page newspaper stories from 1917 that detailed America’s entry into the Great War, including some shocking headlines describing the Zimmerman Note.

Next we wanted to see some of the famous fountains in Kansas City. We drove down to the correct area (the Country Club Plaza) to see these fountains, but we weren’t able to see any fountains from the street. Rather than try to find parking, we decided to drive around the Plaza area and admire the Christmas lights (yes, I know this was in November) that adorned a bevy of roadside chain stores. There were so many chain stores in the Plaza area that Cynthia and I became a bit nauseated. On the bright side, we saw several horses pulling beautiful carriages.

We decided to head over to the famous 18th and Vine neighborhood to listen to a jazz concert that evening. First we had dinner at the Peach Tree restaurant, which offered a nice selection of Southern-style dishes. The food was very tasty and we were entertained during our meal by a jazz singer and her accompanying pianist. The singer sang so well that I wondered if she was Ella Fitzgerald reincarnated. The pianist also improvised superbly during their performance. The service at the restaurant was (for lack of a better word) outstanding. I’m certainly interested in returning there and trying some of the other dishes on their menu.

We then went to the famous Blue Room jazz club. The interior walls were painted blue, which I assume explains its name. The club had several wall-mounted photos of musicians who had performed in the Blue Room. We had the honor that evening of listening to a fabulous performance by the singer Ida McBeth and her jazz ensemble. From listening to Ida sing, I could tell that she put a lot of emotion into her songs; at several poignant moments I almost thought that she was crying. She also talked with her audience and made all of us feel appreciated, which was neat. In addition, she would recognize each of her ensemble’s members after they performed a long and technically difficult solo. She also paid homage to Billie Holiday, which showed her appreciation of jazz history. Overall I enjoyed the concert and gained a new appreciation for jazz.

The next day, we went to the American Jazz Museum. One of the nice exhibits there turned out to be the Blue Room itself, which I didn’t recognize initially even though I had been there the previous evening. The Blue Room had a nice timeline of the history of jazz along the rear wall, including a selection of famous albums from each time period. Another exhibit in the Blue Room contained interesting jazz-related items including documents describing a local union that early jazz musicians in Kansas City formed. The rest of the museum was also fascinating. One room contained numerous colorful booths that highlighted either a particular artist or a particular type of jazz, where patrons could listen to a collection of selected music. Each booth was also shaped like a musical instrument or a musical note. I learned about Louis Armstrong’s international appeal, listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and watched Duke Ellington joke around with several dolls on a recorded TV broadcast. I didn’t get to listen to much of Charlie Parker’s music, though, which was a bit of a downer. Cynthia chatted with one of the maintenance workers there, and he told her that Arthur Bryant’s original sauce was made with burnt ends, which explained its bitter taste.

Next, we went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was in the same building as the Jazz Museum. In retrospect I think that the entire Baseball Museum was laid out like a stadium, though I could be wrong. The museum featured a superb layout of the history of the Negro Leagues, which was particularly impressive given the plethora of teams, leagues, and the relative lack of reliable documentation of the Negro Leagues. I learned about the power-hitting catcher Louis Santop, the dominant pitcher/hitter Martin Dihigo, and the all-world infielder John Henry Lloyd, who was favorably regarded by Honus Wagner. Other tidbits such as the existence of a Black World Series and a Black All-Star Game increased my appreciation of the museum. After we wandered around the periphery of the museum, we stepped into the central portion, which consisted of a replica of a baseball diamond along with life-sized statues of the best Negro League players at their respective positions. I stood on the mound with Satchel Paige, rubbed shoulders with Buck Leonard and was proud to stand next to Josh Gibson. Buck O’Neil stood behind the fence behind home plate; on a side note, I think that O’Neil should be in the Hall of Fame.

We decided to head over to the other famous Kansas City BBQ restaurant, Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q. This restaurant had a significantly larger percentage of African-American patrons than did Arthur Bryant’s on the previous day. I think that I enjoyed the meal at Arthur Bryant’s more than the meal at Gates, though the original sauce from Gates was very tasty. The servers made sure to greet us with their famous “Hi, may I help you?” query.

Finally, we wrapped up our trip by visiting the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence. For some reason we had to pay an admissions fee, which was a bit surprising since the LBJ library on the UT-Austin campus allows for free admission. Besides that minor annoyance, though, the rest of the library was impressive. Since I was already somewhat familiar with Truman’s presidency and the Cold War, I tried to mine various nuggets from my time in the museum. I was impressed by Truman’s meticulous notes on his various duties on February 23, 1952. I also read a draft of a nasty note that Truman wrote to Senator Joseph McCarthy after McCarthy’s famous anti-Communist speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. In addition, I heard a recording of a speech that General MacArthur gave to the Senate after he was sacked by Truman during the Korean War. The overall impression that I got of Truman’s presidency was that it was somewhat successful, but he was heavily overshadowed by FDR (arguably one of the top 5 presidents in U.S. history) and the war-hero status of Eisenhower. The library also featured an expansive downstairs section that I had to hurry through, though. One wing of the downstairs section featured clothing worn by Presidents and their spouses during famous events, including the dress that Hillary Clinton wore for the Inaugural Ball in 1993. Another section allowed patrons to watch famous political commercials, including LBJ’s attack on Barry Goldwater involving a nuclear explosion that overshadowed a little girl picking flowers in a field. I didn’t have much time to inspect the exhibits that described Truman’s life, but I did read about his construction of a tennis court at his home in Grandview to attract the athletic Bess Wallace. He was also extremely devoted to his daughter, Margaret.

We then drove back to St. Louis, where we watched the Kansas-Missouri game in a bar near campus. Jayhawks QB Todd Reesing showed enormous pluck in making big plays in the second half, though Tigers QB Chase Daniel was clutch down the stretch. The final sack of Reesing in his own end zone capped off the Tigers’ triumph. Numerous Tigers fans in the bar made derogatory comments about Mark Mangino, which was somewhat galling.

Overall, I enjoyed our trip to Kansas City and would want to go there again. Perhaps every big city in the United States has its own inherent charms that just need to be explored to be appreciated. If I ever visit Detroit I will put this theory to the test…

Show Me more of the state

Yesterday was Fall Break at WashU, so I took the opportunity to take a much needed break from campus and explore other parts of Missouri. The two major cities in Missouri are St. Louis and Kansas City, with Columbia in between them geographically. The real reason for the trip was that I gave a seminar in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at the University of Missouri-Columbia and talked to some of the faculty there about my iron oxide work. It’s nice to meet people at nearby universities and see where we can collaborate with each other.

This weekend also happened to be Mizzou’s homecoming, where in football, Mizzou played Texas Tech today. The alumni center, where we had lunch, was decked out in black and gold balloons, symbolizing the Tiger colors, and football helmet go-carts drove around campus. I also saw the famous six limestone columns on Francis Quadrangle, which are the only remains of the original campus building that burned down in 1892.

While I’m on the subject of Mizzou, I’ll point out this article to any of you that have influence in the state legislature.

Columbia is only about 30 miles north of Jefferson City, the state capitol. So, I went there too yesterday. The state capitol building looks a lot like the US Capitol in Washington, DC., right down to the dome and the columns. The lawns in front were decorated with various modern art sculptures, and the building inside contained a state history museum. On a site note, the carillon of St. Peter’s church across the street was probably the most out-of-tune carillon I’ve ever heard. What was neat was that I learned why Thomas Jefferson is so revered in this state. He signed the paperwork authorizing the Louisiana Purchase, for which we Missourians owe our statehood.

St. Louis church update

Some of you might have been wondering what happened to the weekly church search updates. Well, I’ve decided to attend and most likely join Memorial Presbyterian Church. I liked the location close to campus, the organ music, the science and faith discussion group, the presence of seminary students to offer deep insights into Scripture, etc. But what cemented my decision was the strong focus on reaching out to the “creative classes” of the central corridor of St. Louis. This area stretches from the Arch in the east to Clayton in the west, and is home to the majority of the young urban professionals and the educational, medical, media, artistic and cultural institutions of the St. Louis region. Memorial is in the process of renovating matthewschapel Center for Music & the Arts (and other capital campaign projects), which will be used to:

  • foster a Christian ministry of presence in the arts & music scene
  • serve local artists and musicians
  • tear down the walls of suspicion that at times have separated artists and musicians and the church

The hope is that this will be a free venue for local community theatre, independent music, recitals, speakers, discussions, debates, film viewings and art exhibits, featuring Christians and non-Christians alike. I was reminded this weekend that the early 1980’s hardcore punk bands featured in the documentary “American Hardcore” often got their start playing in church venues, so this could be almost like coming full circle. I think it’s a very interesting ministry opportunity and I am eager to see the chapel open in November.

Looking back at my previous blog entries, I realize how insecure I was during my first couple of weeks in St. Louis. I was very unsure whether I would be able to find a church here, considering how long it took me to decide on GraceDC. I kept looking for reasons why I shouldn’t go to the first church I tried, because I was hoping to do another comprehensive church search and be very sure that I had made the right decision. I realized pretty quickly in mid-August that I simply did not have the time or mental energy to aimlessly try out a new church every week for the next few months. But now I feel pretty plugged in at Memorial and am more sure that I belong there and can help bridge the gap between the church and the university.

New City Fellowship in St. Louis

I had heard many good things about New City Fellowship, given its similarities to Faith Christian Fellowship in Baltimore. Not only is the church located only a ten-minute drive from my house, but it is a PCA church reaching out to a primarily African-American neighborhood. For those of you familiar with University City, the general consensus is that the residents of the area south of Delmar Boulevard are primarily white, and that the residents of the area north of Olive Boulevard are primarily black. I am not sure if this racial gradient is a function of the concomitant housing price gradient, or merely a remnant of historical segregation.

Anyway, the church has an outreach to West Africans through efforts to incorporate French and African songs into the worship music, and a side-by-side translation of the Bible passage in French. The music was all contemporary, and the worship team was multi-racial. The congregation was also multi-racial, and multi-generational. The church has a definite focus on providing for the needs of the poor, with an extensive food and clothing donation center. The sermon, well, was neither overwhelmingly expository nor completely practical, but rather, an overview of Jesus’ resurrection as presented in the gospel of Matthew. The communion time at the end of the service was unique in that everyone formed a huge circle around the auditorium and the trays were passed around the circle.

That being said, I don’t think this church is right for me, despite my very deep desire for racial reconciliation in the church. I found the church to be large and intimidating for visitors. I was barely greeted as I was handed a bulletin when I entered. It may be hard to identify visitors, but I can vouch that people sitting alone are almost 100% likely to be visitors. There were two empty seats on either side of me, and I sat in the very middle of the very long row when it was completely empty (perhaps I should re-think my seating strategy and sit right at the aisle, but I’ve always thought that was rude to latecomers). Partly, this spatial separation may be the result of using folding chairs instead of pew benches. There was no designated greeting time, but rather, a very vague and long break in the middle of the two-hour service where parents brought their infants to the nursery and other people talked to the other people they knew. After sitting awkwardly alone for a few minutes, I whipped out Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development and read and reminded myself why I am here in St. Louis and living in the neighborhood that I am. For someone like me that is craving genuine Christian fellowship and evaluating churches every Sunday, this relative lack of contact, coupled with the non-intellectual bent, was not what I was hoping for.

I also realized today many things about my own giftedness for ministry. When I lived in Boston, I chose to be involved in campus ministry because that’s where I was living and what I was doing already as a graduate student. When I lived in DC, I was no longer a student, so I chose to be involved in urban ministry, specifically in tutoring and mentoring of elementary school children. I realized that I chose this area of service/outreach not because I feel that I am necessarily called to provide for the general needs of African-Americans living in economically-depressed neighborhoods, but because I am very well suited for education and outreach. The reason I liked STEP Tutoring so much is because I really liked my student Crystal. She is highly intelligent and eager to learn and eager to please, and thus I knew that I could help her excel in her studies despite her less-than-ideal financial situation. If she had been highly rambunctious or openly defiant, I would not have been as emotionally willing or able to help her. Confronting my own limitations helped me realize that although I am an evangelical Christian first and foremost, and an academic second (or third, or fourth, etc.), I need to use the gifts God has given me in an appropriate context, given my limited free time away from the job. I feel called to be involved in campus ministry because there is not a strong Christian presence on the Washington University campus. And, for now, that’s where I am going to try to put my efforts and focus.

Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis

One of the things I most anticipate and dread (at the same time!) about moving to a new city is finding a new church home. I’m always fascinated by how different churches conduct worship services and how they approach service and missions. At the same time, I feel like I’m bringing out the worst critic in myself in that I am necessarily judgmental and non-committal in how I evaluate churches that are admittedly imperfect and whose congregations are composed of sinners just like me.

Last Sunday, I visited Memorial Presbyterian Church, which is just south of the Washington University campus. From the get-go, the church reminded me very much of Park Street Church in Boston, which I love for three reasons: Gordon Hugenberger, organ-centric music, and commitment to urban ministry. Memorial has a pastor who graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an organist, and a commitment to urban ministry. Even the layout of the church building was very familiar. Plus, they have a discussion group that meets to talk about faith and science.

But, I happened to find the pastor neither as academic or droll as Gordon Hugenberger, nor as creative or animated as Glenn Hoburg of GraceDC. Rather, he was much more soft-spoken and willing to admit his weaknesses to the congregation.  Plus, this is an admittedly subjective bias, but I would hope that any new visitor to a church would get a personal contact within the week. Not just the standard form letter, which every visitor gets and which for Memorial I found a little self-aggrandizing, but an e-mail or phone invitation for lunch or coffee with a member of the staff. After a week, the trail runs cold and I believe the window of opportunity has closed. This may be a tall order, but one which I believe is vital for attracting seekers and new believers, and even for old-timers like me. I remember failing at this when I used to be on the exec team of the MIT Graduate Christian Fellowship; we were always bad at following up with visitors.  I liked Memorial overall and would go back, but I will be visiting another church this morning.