Across the World and Back

It feels like both no time and forever. I’ve been traveling almost nonstop for four months, and now I’m finally home. It was amazing, exciting, fun, sometimes uncomfortable, endlessly fascinating, useful, productive and indulgent. I don’t want to go anywhere for a long time and yet I would go again in a heartbeat.

Most of it was cities. Not my first choice for travel destinations; I’d prefer villages and mountains, but this was mostly a work trip, so cities it was.

Short trips to Chicago, Berkeley, then overseas to Athens, Volos, Thessaloniki, Plovdiv, Varna, Bucharest, Stockholm, Skovde, Linkoping/Norkoping, Lund, Bremen, Leiden, Munster, Freiburg,  Milan, Moneglia, Florence, Prato, Heraklion, back Athens, then home briefly. Then Seattle, Berkeley, and a final leisurely drive to Mendocino and back for Balkan camp. I gave my cardiac seminar seven times formally, and three times informally. My ‘Aesthetics in Flow Vis’ I gave five times.

I am so grateful to all my hosts, most of whom I had never met in person before. I got such valuable feedback on our work. I was able to learn so much about the stellar work all these new colleagues are doing. I was able to visit their workspaces, meet all their students and postdocs, and see such a range of ways of approaching this research/teaching enterprise we are all engaged in. This kind of visit was so value-added compared to presenting at a conference that I plan many more in the future.

One of my preconceptions that was blown was the way that low university tuitions are managed in Europe. Each program has thousands of qualified students in the first year. They really do have ‘weed-out’ courses, and they accept the impact this has on their demographics (in terms underrepresented minorities) as a given. At the same time the faculty are just as committed (or not) to excellence in teaching as we are here at home.

I visited both thriving and struggling research groups. One common refrain was that there are very limited opportunities for mid-career researchers, so many of them seek (and find, oddly enough) opportunities abroad. This churn may provide good cross-fertilization of research, but it takes quite a toll on the families involved.

So now I’m home. My up-close view of the grass on the other side of the fence revealed that it is green, but no greener than here. My to-do list is even longer than when I started. It turned out that manipulating a cursor on a laptop screen is tough on any train. I still have a lot of processing to do on what I learned, as well as thank-yous to write and connections to follow up on. My students were all productive while I was gone, so I have a lot of their work to review. I’m not complaining! Onward!

Working the travel mix

For most of my career, I’ve separated travel for work from travel for leisure/pleasure. Maybe it was emotional laziness: it’s hard to switch gears, and leisure time seemed soooo precious that I didn’t want to contaminate it. And now that I’m halfway through our two-month European loop, yes, it’s hard, but it’s led to all sorts of authentic experiences we would not have had any other way. I’m loving it.

In the past, work travel meant somewhat stressful conferences, punctuated by brief exchanges with colleagues in cities that were often charm-challenged. If held in beautiful locations, nobody wanted to actually attend the sessions. I’d rather just go somewhere nice and enjoy it.

This trip is different. We are visiting people where they live. We get into town on the train, figure out public transport to get to our AirBnB or hotel, meet whoever is renting the space to us, and get recommendations for neighborhood eateries and shops. The next day I go to my host colleague’s office, see their work space, meet their students, maybe give a seminar. I get to really learn about what they are doing, their philosophies and approaches. I get very constructive feedback on my work. So much more valuable than what happens at a conference!

After, we spend another night or two or six in the area. We’ve done some touristy stuff, but not a lot. Our places usually have kitchens, so we’ll go to the grocery store and try to figure out what to get. Yay for the Google Translate app! Sometimes we get to meet up with Boulder or Balkan camp connections in these towns, and my colleague Einar Heiberg generously invited us to a dinner party at his home in Lund.

The hard part has been deciding what to do with unscheduled time: work vs exercise vs explore vs curate gigs of photos. Take the opportunity to sample a local European delight or finish that conference paper? Hmm. Go to the beach at Den Haag, or finish this post? In this case, I went to the beach. It was freezing, with quivering foam. Call it flow vis.

I’m so grateful for the privilege to have these choices!

Sabbatical Travelogue

Volos 002Fantasy realized: sitting on a train, heading for a Greek port with a funky hotel waiting, working on my laptop. James beside me, searching a hotel for the next night on his phone. My fingers are still tender from starting to build calluses on the baglama we bought a few days ago in Athens. Rain showers pass by outside, wetting the green fields as we ride.

Yesterday I met with a couple of professors at the University of Athens. George Tombras is the chair of the Physics department, with a huge plate of challenge in front of him. 1500 students, 85 faculty (all “strong personalities”). 35 courses, 7 labs, and all students do a thesis. In the past four years an 80% cut in funding. Yes, 30% was not hard to absorb, but the other 50% has been painful. Couple that with the reality that only a few percent of their graduates can expect to find employment in physics. Over at the Technical University, the engineering graduates have an employment rate of maybe 15%. Think we have trouble with student motivation in the US? Yikes!

George and his assistant professor colleague Hector Nistazakis are exploring student conceptions of electricity and ways to increase the relevance of their courses. Our interests overlap in the area of how visualizations can be used. Hector also described his research on the use of wireless networks at optical wavelengths; dedicated building to building links for the ‘last mile’, the impact of atmospheric turbulence on signal attenuation, and how diffuse LEDs might be used for secure wireless transmitters in a room.

Our visit was on the Monday of their Easter break. Despite their difficulties, profs and grad students were working away, focused on what they do best.