Category Archives: outreach

Raising New Scientists: Kelsey Johnson and the Dark Skies, Bright Kids! Program

At my recent conference experience, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Kelsey Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. Apart from her natural sense of humor and deep knowledge of astronomy and the early universe, Dr. Johnson is a writer in her spare time. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and mentioned a current project of writing a non-fiction book to teach parents how to raise scientifically-literate, inquisitive children. We spent a fair amount of time one evening discussing the topic, and later I discovered that she has also started a non-profit program in Virginia to help bring more astronomy into children’s lives.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is a volunteer-run program founded to try to add to children’s existing science education in a way that both highlights astronomical concepts, and teaches them that learning science is fun. Dr. Johnson says it best in her interview with University of Virginia radio station WTJU’s Soundboard program: she hopes Dark Skies, Bright Kids! can teach kids that science isn’t about memorizing the textbook or taking tests; it’s about play. She touches on a really important phenomenon in science education, namely that kids start out in life curious, exploring their worlds, but later on often learn that science is boring, dry, or even scary.

This is something that I’ve mentioned before on this space and thought about on my own beyond that. So much of science outreach is aimed at “making science fun” for the target audience, but what if we could find a way to help developing minds maintain a mental association between their natural curiosity and scientific exploration? We wouldn’t need to correct the idea that science is boring because we wouldn’t let that idea take hold in the first place. To that end, Dark Skies, Bright Kids! offers after school programs, a summer camp, and even a website of resources for parents to create lesson plans or projects to do with their kids outside of school.

I’ve written before about how my first lesson on quantum mechanics came from a 10-year-old boy that I met as a counselor at a drama camp when I was in high school. Children are absolutely interested in science and want to explore, and having programs outside of classroom formalism is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to nurture this natural curiosity. And maybe by raising kids who don’t think science is scary or boring, we could find ourselves living in a world in the future where more people wanted to learn and understand scientific ideas from a multitude of disciplines.

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On Politics, Women in Science, and Being a White Woman in Science

There is a group who has gained some recognition recently, called 500 Women Scientists, which has published a pledge for all supporters of science and equality in the scientists to sign to show their support. I’ve signed it, along with over five thousand other people. And I recommend anyone else who supports science (woman or otherwise) sign the pledge.

But that is not what I’m here to talk about today. Because a new movement of equality founded and perpetuated largely by privileged white women has reminded me of another piece I read recently, one that has stayed with me longer, and one that I think deserves a larger voice. This piece, written by a black woman who has been through the trenches of graduate school, not just as a racial minority or as a woman, but as both, serves as a reminder that white feminism is not the only feminism and that white women are not just fighting for their representation in graduate school.

The author writes about her experience as the only woman of color in her mechanical engineering PhD program. The problem of not being able to find a woman to be your mentor? Well, you’re much less likely to find a woman of color. In fact, in my own graduate experience, I can’t remember one black student in my graduate class, and very few Latino students, plus a few South Asian. In fact, there was a black professor in our group who sent his white graduate student to a conference for Black and Hispanic Researchers as his representative because most of his students were white.

And while I would never want to minimize the struggles that face any minority group in STEM, it bears remembering that while my women colleagues may get together and think that things are getting better or not really notice that there’s any gender inequity in their research group, this is not the case for other minorities. The work still exists to be done and it needs to be inclusive. We need to commit ourselves to all diversity in STEM and not get lost in our specific struggle. I mean, if my undergraduate class thought I didn’t look like a physics grad student (and would say that to me face while I’m up there telling them how I’m going to be grading them), what would they have the nerve to say to someone who looks even more different than I do?

This is a bit of a short post for such an important subject. But that’s because it’s not really my topic to write about. Instead, I would welcome comments from those whose topic it is. Please educate me, and educate my readers, about what STEM is really like for all those who pursue it.

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How to Be Like Me: My seminar on alternative science careers

Last month, I was invited to Northwestern University to give a seminar at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Each semester, they invite one speaker who talks on a topic that is “outside of the box,” as my host put it. I was invited to share my experience moving from a research position into a non-research position as a scientist. As some of you may know, about a year ago, I left my second postdoc position to take a job at a scientific journal. It was an interesting experience to speak to a room full of young scientists about my career path, how I got there, and what I wish I’d known, and I thought I’d give some highlights.

First of all, I had a slight leg up on the average postdoctoral researcher, but only because I’d done enough government interviews to have an outfit that was appropriate for an interview situation. I could dress myself, at least. Apart from that, I was entering new territory.

But let’s back up a bit. As I told the audience, my journey to a publishing job really started years ago when I was trying to decide on a college major and what I wanted to do with my degree. I very briefly considered becoming a high school science teacher because the idea of teaching science appealed to me more than the idea of working in a lab. Now, while I currently realize that I do not want to stand up in front of a high school class every day for the next thirty years and teach them about force and reactions and how to blow things up and call it a “classroom demonstration,” I think I might have been onto something. I find current research fascinating. But I don’t want to sit in a lab and perform it. And working in science publishing gives me the opportunity to do just that.

So I guess the point is, you need to first know yourself and know why you’re looking at a job outside of research. Are you frustrated with the low rate of pay that tends to come with pursuing an academic career? Don’t go into publishing. There are plenty of non-academic and non-research jobs that will provide a higher starting salary to recent PhDs or former postdocs, but publishing doesn’t really seem to be one of them. But are you interested in learning about a lot of different new research without having to turn knobs in the lab? Publishing is where a lot of that research goes.

I suppose the biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting my job search was about the blog The Scholarly Kitchen. This is a blog that covers topics about science publishing and from which my boss sends me posts relating to my work regularly. I also wish I’d took a bit of time to learn more about the more advance capabilities of MS Word. And I had a brief section in my presentation about science writing credentials. While I don’t currently

What I did find useful were blogs about corporate life. I started reading Ask A Manager to get advice about navigating a more corporate interview process, but I stayed for the stories about crazy coworkers and bosses. I also referred to corporate style blogs like Capitol Hill Style (now The Work Edit, which is not quite what it was when I found it useful) and Corporette. As a woman, it can be hard to figure out what to wear to an interview, particularly since your choices are not limited to the color of suit, tie, and Oxford shirt to choose.

I definitely don’t regret leaving research, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering it to at least check out their options. And organizing my thoughts about my career path has not only helped me organize my resources, but also reminded me just why I’m where I am. If anyone has questions about alternative science careers, I’d be happy to discuss in the comments.

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Outreach Fun: Volunteering at the Innovation Festival

So it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts, but this weekend, I definitely had something worth posting about! Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen my photo of an astronaut next to the getup he wore while climbing Mt. Everest. This was just one of the fascinating people I got to meet and exciting projects about which I learned on Sunday.

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The Innovation Festival is a joint venture between the US Patent and Trademark Office and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The NMAH recently opened its Innovation Wing, where they showcase inventions and inventors that changed the world. The permanent collection features things like the bicycle and ready-to-wear clothing alongside the telephone and computer. It’s a really neat exhibit, even when there isn’t a festival going on.

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But add in a wing full of inventors sharing their new patented inventions and you have a recipe for a very fun day. Among the inventors I met were USDA scientists showing off ornamental pepper plants. This guy was really interesting. Apparently he came up with his first patented plant at the age of 10, and now works for the USDA playing with peppers. He was a natural at outreach, and even had a fun analogy for describing how genetic modification works. He said it was like Mr. Potato Head: you can choose which parts you want to add or change. And he brought along a few types of pepper plants to show what he meant. Probably the coolest thing I learned from them is that there is one gene site that controls whether or not a pepper is spicy, and then a bunch of other ones that describe how spicy it is. So you can flip on the spicy gene in a regular bell pepper, which kind of confuses people. One of the other guys there said that he’s been “burned” more than once taking peppers home from work!

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I also met some guys developing workout clothing with built-in resistance bands, scientists who developed a new kind of gel for biological sciences, scientists who created an adaptive algorithm for finding interesting articles for people, and engineers who came up with a more intuitive way to back up a truck trailer, among many others. The most interesting thing was that not everyone was developing a thing or a device, and not everyone was an engineer. There were biologists, astrophysicists, chemists, and skateboarders! The only thing they had in common was that they had an idea.

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Then, I also spent my afternoon at the education and outreach booth, where we shared projects with the younger visitors that taught them about different inventors and inventions. The coolest thing there (besides the inventor trading cards!) was the paper-folding project using a 100-year-old patent held by Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. Apparently, Low came up with a way of folding a flat piece of paper into a receptacle for holding garbage, including liquids. Even though I was a Girl Scout, I never knew our founder was an inventor!

All in all, this was such a fun event. I’d definitely go back as a guest, and certainly volunteer again. It was an event that showed the wide variety of science and invention and really got everyone excited about it!

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Women in Science in Science Fiction Theater: The Dum Dums by Glass Mind Theatre

So this isn’t really a theater review. Except it is. I recently had the chance to go up to Baltimore to see The Dum Dums, a play presented by Glass Mind Theatre at Gallery 788 in Baltimore. It’s a really fun show, but what struck me was the intense portrayal of the experience of being a woman in science. The play takes themes like toxic female competition, impostor’s syndrome, and depression and weaves it into a hilarious and touching show.

Better people than I have actually reviewed this show. Read this review for a pretty accurate idea of what I thought about it as well (although, do yourself a favor and don’t read past the second photo). The show opens with three astronauts embarking on a mission to Tau Ceti E. Right off, I have to give props to the playwright for actually choosing some real planets in the habitable zone of a known star. It lends gravitas to the struggle between the women on board the ship because it makes their training seem more real than fiction

The main characters are Captain Meghan Schill and Navigator Jennifer Traeger, along with Medic Debra Lambert, whose actor also plays a variety of other characters. Traeger embarks on the journey with a severe case of nerves and a horror that she’s made a terrible mistake with the star charts. The other two crewmates ensure her that she’s being silly and that she’s really brilliant. But it turns out, she’s right.

They end up on the wrong planet, hundreds of thousands of years off schedule. The portrayal of the ultimate impostor’s-syndrome-proved-right scenario struck me. It’s a feeling that I’ve struggled with (and I’m sure plenty of others have struggled with) and it was striking to see it up on stage. And yet, not until the end did anyone think to say to Traeger that this was her fault (a statement which is almost instantly regretted).

And yet, Traeger spends more of the stay on the wrong planet consumed with a kind of depressive lethargy that isn’t helped by the excessive gravity of a super-Earth. She flops around the ship, binge eating and binge watching reality shows on her tablet. The sheer honesty of the experience of depression is a far cry from the portrayal of scientists as nerds who have nerd tastes in all things. She watches reality shows about women catfighting at parties, not Star Trek. She is unapologetically “female” in her tastes, despite being an MIT graduate. There are so many more moments in the play that deal with depression, the main theme, that I would just say go see the show if you want to know more.

But the moment that spoke to me the most was a flashback when Traeger meets her future boyfriend in a bar. He’s asking what she does and she responds that she’s an astronaut. And then it comes. That line that I’ve gotten so many times before. “Oh, you must be so smart.” I literally rolled my eyes while sitting in my seat watching that. It’s just such a truth that I instantly identified with Traeger. And the guy in question ultimately proves himself unsuited to dating someone with a high-stress job.

All I can say is that The Dum Dums does a brilliant job of capturing the feeling of being a woman in science. There are also themes of both female competition and the commoditization of female competition. The portrayal of impostor’s syndrome and depression are among the most spot-on that I’ve ever seen. And Traeger is, if not likeable all the time, a very real character. I highly recommend you try to go see it before it closes in April. More information here: http://www.glassmindtheatre.com/season/the-dum-dums/

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Dressing for Success and the Scientist

Recently, Buckingham Palace issued a statement providing guidelines for attire for reporters who wished to have access to the Royal Family. This made me think about the idea of dressing for a job or role in general. I think this is something a lot of scientists have trouble with probably because they think that their science should speak for itself. Or maybe they just don’t like being around other people. The stereotype of the introverted physicist is not based entirely in fantasy.

So you get people who wear jeans and a t-shirt to give a scientific talk. One friend of mine thought it was hilarious to give his conference talks wearing what we affectionately called his “fart shirt.” Plenty of my former colleagues never dressed up beyond a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. These were the same people who thought it was amusing that I didn’t wear jeans to the lab for at least my first year in grad school.

Since then, I’ve always had to balance my sense of style with my image as a scientist. There’s this idea that if you dress too well, your knowledge is somehow suspect. And yet, in the rest of the world, your outward appearance is what communicates that you are a competent individual. Grad students might get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt to give conferences at scientific conferences, but once they’re looking for a job outside of grad school, they might wonder why they get passed over if they show up to interviews in casual attire. The fact is that when we meet someone, their external appearance and maybe a piece of paper with a resume is the only thing we have to judge.

Since getting my PhD, I’ve gone a slightly less traditional route for postdoctoral positions. I applied for government jobs, which meant I had to dress not only professionally, but wear a full suit. And because government tends to be conservative, as a woman I had to make sure to get a skirt suit. And when I looked at the line of grad students waiting to get into the career fair, I realized that I was probably the best-dressed woman in the bunch.

Dressing up rather than down is also a good way to prevent people from assuming you are younger and less experienced than you are. When I had a summer internship, I worked closely with a postdoc who wore khakis and an un-tucked, too-large polo shirt every day. I tried to dress nicely because I was in my first “real” job. As a result, people would frequently assume he was the student and I was the post-doc, which irritated him to no end, but it goes to show the importance of looking your best.

So I guess my point is that even if you’re a scientist, you should probably think about how you dress. It doesn’t make you any less of a scientist, and it just might improve how people perceive you outside of the tiny group of experts that you think you want to impress.

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Building the World You Want To Live In

I’m currently in the process of building a new experiment. It’s a different experience for me because I’ve always been the person who joined an in-progress project, not the person who was given an empty table and a pile of equipment and told “Go!” It’s definitely had its challenges, but it’s also made me think a lot.

About policy and outreach.

Yeah, it seems a bit weird, but I realized that the same skills that go into building a lab go into shaping policies towards science and outreach. I’m building the world I want to live in.

When I was in graduate school, I found out that grad students at my institution had no formal access to any kind of maternity leave. Now, I had no children, or even plans of having children any time soon. In fact, I was on the pill at the time. But I thought that seemed like a bad idea. I mean, pregnancy is something that can happen even if you don’t mean it to, and the only official option was to take a leave of absence. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that our stipends and health insurance benefits were tied to our student status. For many of us, our student loan deferrals or even visas to be in the US were tied to our student status. So a pregnant graduate student could see her insurance evaporate, all her loans come due or her visa revoked, right at the same time she also loses her meager income. It doesn’t seem like a friendly way to retain women in their mid-to-late 20s.

I also had a friend who was a new father and a university senator. I mentioned this issue to him and worked to help him research what a graduate student parental leave would cost the university so he could draft a proposal to implement such a policy. I still have no children, but I wanted a policy in place before I needed it.

How is this like building a lab, you might ask? Well, in the case of maternity leave, I saw a problem that might arise for me (and others) in the future and worked to correct it before it became a problem. In the policy world, lawmakers have to do the same thing: try to anticipate problems and solve them before they become a problem. When building a lab, there are certain things you know from the outset you will need: space, power, general equipment. Then, you look at your specific experiment and figure out what you will need immediately, a month from now, six months from now. You may even try to predict the direction in which the research will go and order equipment ahead of time so you’re not waiting on things to ship.

But then, sometimes, something just comes up. And when something comes up, the first thing you do is put a patch on it, try to get things up and running again as soon as possible. Kind of like passing a CR. But you don’t stop there. You then figure that thing-that-came-up into your plans and try to prevent the problem from happening again before the temporary patch fails. In the same way, some policies that go into place are not necessarily meant to be immediately effective, but will prevent a larger problem from coming up further down the road. The most effective fixes are the ones that the next grad student (or generation) will never know you needed.

In that way, my interest in outreach and policy comes from a desire to see science succeed unimpeded into the next generation. I write for general audiences, and give lab tours to a variety of people, in addition to doing my research because science will not succeed if only scientists are interested in it. I realize that it’s all scientists’ jobs to get as many people excited about science as possible. Only then can we use our skills to help shape a world in which we can all live happily.

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#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

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What Is a Physicist?

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.

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The Theater of Science

Anyone who knows me personally or reads my cooking blog knows that I’ve gotten into a community theater play. Yes, for the first time since college, I’m going to be on the stage. It’s a fun and exhilarating experience, although I joke that giving presentations at scientific conferences, or giving tours of the various labs in which I’ve worked has provided more than enough practice for presenting a persona in front of a group of strangers.

I firmly believe that anyone considering pursing science as a career should also consider taking a theater class. Or going out for a play. Or performing improv on the Metro. Maybe not that last one.

Anyway, I was backstage chatting with my castmates and one of them mentioned that she had met a woman who was studying kinesthesiology in one of her acting classes. This young woman was so petrified of speaking in public it was affecting her ability to give lectures in front of students. So she took the initiative to put herself through an acting class to give herself some skills and confidence in that arena. My castmate said she was obviously painfully shy, but made it through. I hope she felt some benefit outside the classroom.

So I joked when I started going to auditions again that I may have an almost 10-year gap on my acting resume, but really, I’ve been continuing to play the part of a cool, confident scientist who knows exactly what she’s talking about every time I get up to give a talk or lab tour. But it’s not entirely a joke. There’s a calm that comes in the knowledge that, no matter what’s going on in the “real world,” you can put on a persona and just speak your piece.

Because being a scientist is not just about doing your research. It’s not enough to be brilliant in the lab, not really. You need to be able to communicate your research to other people. Because the explanation will be so much richer coming from the person who fully understands the research. And you have to be able to read your audience, know when they’re trying and failing to understand you, and when they’re just tired or wishing your talk were over so they could get lunch. You have to learn not to get flustered by a disengaged audience, and how to re-engage them when you can. You have to be able to have the confidence to explain at any level to people of any background. And a lot of that is acting. Even when you’re about to burst into tears because nothing works, you have to be able to put on an engaging face and sell your research if a tour comes through. Even when you broke a major part of your experiment the week before, you have to go to that major conference and perform your conference talk.

And that’s where acting experience comes into science. It’s not about making things up. It’s about communicating your excitement for your work effectively.

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