One door …, another one … (fill in the blanks)

When one door closes another opens. According to online sources, Alexander Graham Bell said that. Right now it feels like the other way around to me: One door opens, another one closes. But I try to remind myself that Bell also added “but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us”.

Soon after my last blog post, a door that was closing actually opened. I got tenure. Yaaayyy!! I know, I know, I did not blog about it. I seem to only blog when things are not going well. Hopefully it won’t be like this forever and things will get better and I will blog about how great my job is. Because it is. The other stuff tends to cloud it at times, though. And I needed some time to heal, to not think about it. It did not work, btw. I am still wounded and I did not stop thinking about it. It has been a pretty traumatic year.

Anyway, after a long waiting period, a long appeal, lots of anxiety, the committee above the Dean revised their recommendation and approved my tenure. That was such a relief. I told my husband, my family, a few friends and colleagues, and the whole world via social media. I shed a few tears of happiness and relief after over a year of waiting and uncertainties. The celebration was short-lived because my husband’s future boss heard about it and got worried I was going to prevent my husband from moving and taking the new job he had accepted in a state far, far away, while I was waiting for my tenure appeal to go through (you can read about this here). Husband woke up to an email from him the next morning and the pressure was back on.

What are we going to do?

Option 1: Live apart and see each other on weekends? Who gets the kids? Who gets to be a single parent while managing a career? Who gets to not see their loved-ones 5 days/week? After spending several days solo-parenting while he was away for work, I can tell I am not built to be a single parent. And neither is he. That option is out.

Option 2: I quit my newly tenured job for which I had to fight so much to move with him and become a housewife or a lecturer or attempt a new career outside of academia. This is way low on my priority list, and for now, not something I want to do.

Option 3: I was hoping to get a tenured position in the new city. I had applied for a job advertised there but did not make the short list. It looks like they are interviewing junior scientists and I am not junior anymore. I am still going to bug them to see if they can do anything but let’s be honest, it probably won’t happen. New city has another university too and I will try there as well but, again, the odds of that working out are low.

Option 4: The commute. New city is a 3 hour flight and 2 time zones away from current city. Husband has to be there 5 days/week and we already established that option 1 will not work for our family, so he will not live there and come back on weekends. Instead, I could move there with the family and fly back to current city, stay 3 consecutive days/week to teach classes, advise students, etc, and then go back home. I have tenure, so as long as I teach and do my duties I can live elsewhere and not show up on campus everyday. It is far, far from ideal but that is an option that will avoid me giving up my tenured job. Husband would be on his own 3 days/week (perhaps 4 nights depending on flight schedule) and I will have to spend a chunk of our earnings on travel, parking and lodging but it is an option that might work for a short while.

Option 5: We get jobs in a third city. We both have pending applications and if there were 2 jobs in a different place, we would go in a heartbeat. That almost happened to us in 2012, but may not happen again for a while. Even if we choose option 4, we will keep applying until we find a more reasonable option.

Option6: Husband gets job in another city close enough to current city that the commute will be more feasible. He actually just interviewed in such a place, and it happened to be the city he grew up in and where his family is located. I probably would not get a job there even if he gets one, but it is a more manageable distance to commute from. Fingers crossed.

Option 7: Get husband hired at current R1. We already tried that in 2012 and it failed but I did not have tenure then. However, I have little hope that this will work out this time because my department has always found one excuse or another not to hire spouses, even those who were fully qualified, even those who turned out to be superstars and had won huge awards before being considered for spousal hire, even if a position was handed to them by the Dean, even when the faculty member and the spouse had external offers (sometimes at much higher ranks than at current R1). I will find out in a few days whether history is going to repeat itself and my department will just let me and spouse go because “it is unavoidable” or whether they will realize they have a problem retaining women (only one made it from assistant to associate to full prof in the >90 years of history of the department, every other one left before or was hired with tenure) and do something about it.

To come back to Graham Bell’s quote, I will try to not look too long at the closed door if option 7 fails and hope for another one to open soon after that.

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When the threat of tenure denial becomes more real

I hate to be a grinch after a nice blog post was published on The Tenure She Wrote about how it is possible to be a wife, a mom, have a life and get tenure. I could have written a similar post a year and a half ago, but things have changed and while I am glad some women manage to do it, I am no longer convinced I am going to be part of that club.

In the summer 2014, my department requested evaluation letters from outside referees for my tenure file. I learned in the Fall that out of the nine letters they got two were bad, including one particularly nasty one. I was devastated. However, being at a public university I was allowed to see the redacted version of those letters (I can see the content but not any info revealing who the author is) and respond to the criticisms before my colleagues discussed and voted on my case. Five of the letters were excellent, two were good, and two were bad. The worst letter contained factual errors and the criticisms were so over the top that it almost should have canceled itself. I was able to write a rebuttal and to clarify some points. The committee put in place in my department to review my case wrote a very nice and positive letter about me and my research program, and recommended me for tenure. So did the rest of my colleagues, except for 4 nays but that’s not unheard of in my department for a woman going up for tenure and it has not been an issue in the past. That was a big relief.

Usually my R1 university does not deny tenure to people who get a favorable vote from their department. At least that’s what I had been told. I also got to see the letter my department Chair wrote before my file got sent to the Dean’s office. In his letter he explained the special personal circumstances that I had to deal with pre-tenure, tried to counter the two negative letters I received, and ended his letter by recommending tenure. Considering the hell I went through a few weeks before when I read my outside letters for the first time, I was very happy with how things were turning out. Except for one thing and I wish I had said something at the time. This one thing is that the Chair wrote that I had had delays due to my personal circumstances, but that my research output had started to accelerate and was promising. PROMISING. That is not a word that tenure committees want to see. They want to read words like “leader”, “expert”, “established”, etc. He clearly got that from one of the letter writers who said regarding one of my recent papers that the future would tell whether it was right or not. Well, first this is how people work in my field. You find something interesting, it goes through peer review, gets published, and then more research is done by yourself and/or by others to determine if the same observations or conclusions can be made with other data or other methods. It is not as if my work predicted the weather for the next day, which could easily and quickly be verified. So, yes it will take time to prove or disprove my results, but that is just the nature of the work done in my field. And this is how science advances. Not everything has to pass the test of time. It is ok to eventually be proven wrong. You publish results based on the data and analyses available at the time and if a few years later someone shows this is wrong because new data are available or better methods are developed, then so be it. That is progress. The fact that something I published has not been tested by others yet should not be held against me. In fact, a high profile paper I wrote during my PhD took over 10 years to finally be proven right, or at least to have others finally publish work confirming my results. Should I not have received my PhD because at the time it my results had not been verified yet?

Anyway, “promising” is the type of wording one will more often see when describing a woman’s research than a man’s. Our Chair even used similar words for another female assistant professor going up for tenure at the same time as me in my department. I wish I had told him that the wording of his letter left something to be desired because I just learned that the committee above the Dean is not recommending my tenure 😦 This news came in on the last day of my maternity leave. Not that it matters but… This was a surprise after both the department and the Dean recommended tenure. I have not seen the Dean’s letter but I know he is very supportive of me. It is pretty rare that the administration goes against the Dean’s recommendation at my institution. In places like Yale, Princeton, MIT, etc it happens all the time. But not here. The Dean had even told me that nobody in Physical Sciences had ever been denied tenure in the 10 years he had been Dean and that only one person got denied tenure in the entire time he has been at our R1. So why is it happening to me?

I still feel like crap about it. And I also feel a sense of injustice. After all the personal struggles I have had, I still managed to get published in high profile papers, graduate students, raise grants, get awards, and be invited to speak at various conferences and in various institutions. So what is going on? I know I had two negative letters and a department Chair who could have phrased things better, but I thought I had managed to write a convincing rebuttal and I have the department and the Dean’s support! At this point I have not been given a clear reason why. I was told it had to do with my publication record and that I did not try to improve upon my teaching. The part about my teaching is not true. I had bad evaluations for the general education class I taught in the beginning, but the last two years have been better and I have actively sought advices from education specialists to improve my teaching. I tried new  teaching methods and they seem to have made a difference. I got better evaluations and positive feedback from students. And the evaluations for the more specialized classes I have taught are very good. That same above-the-Dean committee had said my research was fine at my mid pre-tenure evaluation. I even have exceeded the recommendations they and the department made at the time. So why??

Because they are going against the Dean’s recommendation, the Dean was allowed to go talk to them and appeal in my favor, which he did. I provided him with documents proving I had done everything (and more) I had been recommended to do at my mid pre-tenure review, and proving I am still productive (despite being pregnant and then having a baby this past year should I say): papers have been submitted and I have been elected to be a distinguished lecturer by the main professional society in my subfield. This has to count for something! I am very thankful that the Dean went to bat for me. He must have been convincing since the committee decided to revise my file once again and possibly change their mind. But they won’t do it until the Fall 2015 because it is now the summer and they are on break. The waiting game is a real torture but perhaps it will end in a positive outcome. After which I will still have to fight to solve my two-body problem, but that is another story…

On the torture that is waiting for a tenure appeal decision

This is October 2015. I filed for tenure at the end of August 2014. My department voted to recommend my tenure in early to mid December 2014. The Chair’s letter went to the Dean’s office some time toward the end of December 2014 and my case must have left the Dean’s office some time in January 2015. I waited, and waited, and waited to hear back. I tried to not think about it too much but as the end of the academic year approached, the tension started to build up. Then, a few days before the end of the academic year, I heard back that the next level up of administration (above the Dean) did not approve of my tenure. It was crushing. Lots of tears. There is still one more level up of administration to go through after this one, but I do not know what the odds are that the next level would override this negative recommendation. I guess it’s possible but who knows….

I learned the next day that there was a whole official appeal process from there on since the administration went against the Dean’s recommendation. I appealed with the Dean’s support on July 7, 2015. I provided the Dean and the administration with new material:

  • new publications
  • award
  • other various demonstrations of recognized expertise in my scientific community
  • proofs that I followed the recommendations the administration made at my mid tenure review and that I actually even went beyond those recommendations
  • showing that I have worked toward improving my teaching and was successful (if you believe that improved students evaluations is a sign of that)
  • demonstrating that my pub record is at least as good as others who got tenure in my department before me.
  • demonstrating that my pub record is similar to that of people in my direct sub-field of research, of similar PhD age and who are either tenured or going up for tenure soon

The administration went on break a few weeks after the appeal. And I am still waiting to hear back. I know they decided to revisit my case after I appealed, so there is a chance they will reverse their recommendation and then I have to hope the next level up will agree to my tenure. But the wait is excruciating. I have a tendency to have anxiety and though it has been under control for a good decade now, I can feel it creeping up.

To make matters worse (or better depending on the viewpoint), my spouse was offered a job in another state far away that he had to accept considering the situation and since he is on soft money at my institution. We have 2 kids and a mortgage in an expensive big city. We can’t afford to sit and wait for my R1 to make a decision on me. And even if I end up getting tenure, what should we do? Stay, keep struggling financially, and have my spouse work at level lower than he deserves? That would avoid uprooting the kids and selling the new house we bought and renovated recently. A house we really love. And that would keep us only a 3 hour drive away from spouse’s family as opposed to a 3 hour flight away (though who we do not see them that often so perhaps it should not weigh in the balance). Or should we leave and hope I will either try on a new career or get a faculty position in the same city as my spouse? There is an opening for a position at a big R1 there to which I applied, but the odds of getting one faculty position are always low. Spouse’s salary in the new city won’t be enough to support the whole family there either, even though the cost of living is lower.

And if the administration declines tenure at the end of the appeal, should I try to withdraw my case and resubmit since I am technically going up for tenure early (though everyone in physical sciences goes up a year early for some reason)? Another year of suffering and moving in new city for a year while my R1 decides on my fate?

So many questions. So much stress. So much anxiety. It has become difficult to get work done. I try to not think about all this but clearly, this blog post proves that it is very much on my mind. I feel like I am falling in a well of depression. I try to fight back but I am not winning right now. And I am not the most fun person to around when I am stressed and anxious, as you can probably imagine. I do not like the person I am when I am under a lot of stress. The wait needs to stop. It is really unfair to make a family wait like this when so much is at stake. This does not make me feel very valued by the university, but then I am probably just a number among hundreds of faculty members and we are all replaceable at some level.

And suffice to say my motivation to be on committees and teach a new class in 2016 as planned is pretty low right now…

When the outside world confirms you are an imposter

I battled with the imposter syndrome for years, probably all my life. I can remember being unsure of my work in elementary school and needing the teacher’s approval or confirmation that I was on the right track.

I did not know that what I was feeling was a thing, that it had a name, until relatively recently. The imposter syndrome is getting a lot of attention on social media. The Tenure She Wrote blogging team had a recent post on the subject. Caltech has a whole webpage on it. Even Forbes and Slate.com published about it. Clearly, it is not just a problem in academia, but also for many women in high level positions outside of academia.

I started to feel a little more confident in grad school. My work was getting positive attention, which helped. The me who started a PhD and the me who finished it were almost different people. But that does not mean the newer me did not suffer from the imposter syndrome anymore. Less, yes, but it never really left me. And it did not take long for it to show its ugly head again. It poisoned my productivity during my first postdoc. My self-confidence (personal and professional) was really low. I even considered quitting academia. This was also when I started interviewing for faculty positions. Suffice to say, my low self-esteem must have transpired one way or another and I kept not getting any offer, confirming (at least in my head) that I was not good enough.

But I got help and I started being able to deal with (and eventually overcome) my general lack of self confidence (at least a big part of it). I got a second postdoc with a different advisor, in a department with a lot more social and intellectual interactions than any I had been in before. That definitely helped a lot. And after a few more job rejections, I got offered a faculty position at an R1 university. Until then I had not been entirely sure that it was what I wanted, but it “only” took an offer for me to realize that’s what I want and to think that I can actually be good at it.

I started as an assistant professor in this R1 university. I suffered from a few major setbacks (My Mom died during my first year, I had a child during my 4th year, and my husband almost died a year later. This was followed by a long recovery – read this if you want to know more), but despite all this I think I did pretty well on the tenure-track. I got my first grant as PI funded within the first year, another one the second year, and I recruited an excellent first grad student. A second student joined my group two years later, and my first student graduated after less than 5 years and got a postdoc in a prestigious place with one of the best in my field. I have recruited two new students for this upcoming academic year, got a third proposal funded as main PI, and was selected to be a Distinguished Lecturer by the main society in my field. And two of the female undergrads I mentored went to grad school. The type of research I do is computationally intensive, time-consuming, and generally leads to a lower publication rate than other people in related fields and sub-fields. It is hard to keep my self-confidence up when I compare my publication rate to friends and colleagues in related fields. However, after looking closely and comparing my research output to that of other junior faculty in my sub-field (there is just a handful of us), I realized that it is very comparable. I have raised more grants than some others and I have two high profile papers as first author, one of them published a year ago with my students (that definitely help boosts one’s self confidence!).

It’s all good, right? Everyone was telling me I would be ok when I would come up for tenure. Well, here we are in year 6 on the TT (not counting 2 years off the clock). I submitted my file almost a year ago (August 2014). In the Fall 2014, I waited for the announcement from my Chair that a faculty meeting was scheduled for my colleagues would discuss my case. There had already been meetings for my two colleagues who were going up for tenure at the same time, but mine kept on being delayed, and delayed… My department chair was not responding to my emails in which I was asking what was going on, adding to the stress. I had the sinking feeling that something was not going well… Finally, I had a meeting with my Chair who handed me the redacted version of my outside letters…

Hope Jahren said in her post “How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome“:

” When you don’t fit the mold or look the part and you constantly get messages saying you don’t belong, there is no Earthly substitute for a piece of paper that says you can never ever be kicked out.”

Well, I can tell you that there is nothing like an outside letter saying you don’t deserve tenure and that you have failed on all accounts to reactivate your imposter syndrome. And it sucks. You work evenings and weekends, you get exhausted, you make sacrifices, you put your heart and sometimes a big chunk of your life into your work and you just end up being kicked out to the curb. And this despite getting awards for your hard work, publishing in highly respected journals, getting invited to give talks in prestigious places, etc. I have not been denied tenure yet, but a negative letter like the one I got is not good news.

Fall 2014 was not fun. I cried a lot. Sometimes in front of my preschooler who did not understand what was going on and started acting out at school soon afterwards. I felt a mix of emotions, negative ones obviously. Disappointment. Disappointment in myself.  Disappointment in the system. Shame. Shame because I was going to disappoint all the people who believed in me. I failed them and I failed myself. Anger. How can someone write a letter as nasty as that? I hope this person thought about it twice before risking to ruin someone’s career. How can someone say in the same letter they cannot recommend tenure but that I would not have gotten tenure in their department if it was not for the high profile, first-authored paper I published last year. What does that mean exactly? That I would have gotten tenure in their department just based on that paper? A general sense of worthlessness. Clearly, I am not good enough. And people have started to notice. I can no longer fool them.

You get the picture. Fortunately I am a pretty resilient person and I have great friends and a wonderful husband to support me and help me go through the tough times. So I tried to shake off these feelings and got ready to fight back.

On PTSD

This post will reveal my identity to anyone who knows me or my spouse, but it’s ok. I am still debating whether to keep my blog anonymous or not.

PTSD: mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, an accident or disaster. It even has an official government website. I am pretty sure I have PTSD. I have not been in a war, an accident, assault, or anything like that. But I have been through other traumatic events. A couple of them are (kind of) normal life events that anyone can go through at some point.

Warning to my husband: you probably do not want to read this. On a related note, Hope Jahren wrote a piece on why trigger warnings in social media are useful, and while I did not realize why they could be useful before, I do understand now.

Let’s begin. My first summer as an assistant professor, I decided to not go visit my family on another continent to focus on writing and submitting grant proposals. No big deal, right? And it paid off since one of them got funded a few months later. Well, I did regret skipping that trip. And still do. In November of that year I got a call from my Dad telling me my grandmother had died in her sleep. A week later that my Mom was in the hospital not doing well at all. My grandmother was in her early 80s, died peacefully, the way she wanted. My Mom was 57 years old. She had been sick for a long time (since she was in her 30s) of a degenerative condition, but had kept the severity of it hidden from me (and from my sister). Having moved away from home 10 years earlier to study abroad, I had not quite realized how bad things had gotten for her. And whenever I visited, it was a short visit once a year at most. I could see she was not doing as well as the years went by but did not suspect that she had only about 10% of her lung capacity left. So, she got yet another infection that sent her to the hospital that winter. But when my Dad told me I should fly back to see her I knew it was bad. And indeed, by the time I had landed she had to be put in an artificial coma from which she never woke up. It lasted 3 weeks to the day. Three horrible weeks during which I watched my Mom die. She was never conscious during those 3 weeks, did not know I was there, did not hear all the things I told her that I had never told her before. When she passed away I felt a mix of emotions including sadness and a bit of relief. It was over. And she was not going to wake up needing full-time care. After so long with so little oxygen, who knows what kind of life she would have gotten had she woken up? Probably not a good life. It was already not that great before… That was in December 2008.

Fast forward to July 2012. My husband and I finally solved our “two body problem“. We had been offered faculty positions in another country after interviewing there independently, we were ready to move. Everything was set except choosing a moving company and packing. We had found temporary lodging, arranged for the pets to move with us, signed up for daycare for our 15 months old daughter, booked a flight, etc. We even had managed to get (and accept) a good offer on the condo we had bought 9 months earlier. The day we signed the papers to accept that offer,  about 3 weeks before our flight was scheduled, my husband complained he was not feeling well and had a bit of fever. He had back pain as well. The next day he was not feeling better, vomited once, and his temperature was even higher. Since he has a history of needing to go to the ER to get rehydrated when he has a stomach flu, I decided to get him to the doctor the following day. It was a Friday. The doctor saw that his eyes were jaundiced and when she poked him in the stomach he was in pain. She sent him to the ER for further tests on his liver. I was worried but not beyond reasonable. When I got there the next morning, though, he was in a regular room at the hospital but had an oxygen mask on. They could not figure out what was going on with his liver but he had started having trouble breathing. Being reminded of what had happened with my Mom, I started to panic even though I knew it was not the same thing. PTSD. On Monday morning, he had been sent to the ICU because his respiratory distress was worse. He was on morphine, not quite himself anymore (morphine tends to make you loopy), and his temperature was not going down. I spent several nights at the hospital while a friend was spending the night at our condo to look after my daughter. Thursday morning he had been put in an artificial coma. He had been fighting the respirator and had tried to get out of bed but fell and was in even more distress. The next day, things degenerated even faster and the doctor told me to be “prepared for the worst”. The respirator was at full capacity, there was nothing else they could do except a dialysis and a transfer to another hospital that had a newer machine. Both the dialysis and the transport could have killed him. But it did not. I will remember that trip in the ambulance forever. Every bump on the road could have been fatal. But he made it to the other hospital. His condition started to improve with the newer, more technologically advanced respirator. There were lots of ups and downs during the following 3 weeks, though. Hopes that get crushed because some things improved only to get worse again soon after. I had to sign papers for various procedures that could have led to his death if unsuccessful. The doctors tried to remove his oxygen tubes several times but had to put them back because his oxygen level was going back down. I felt like a horrible mother because I could not deal with my baby daughter. All I wanted was to be with my husband and I was unable to be a good mother to her. Thankfully I kept sending her to daycare so she would have a “normal” day even if the evenings and mornings without daddy were not normal and she did not understand what was going on. She could not even talk yet, just a few words.

During week 3 at the second hospital, he had to have a tracheostomy, and soon after that the doctors started to wake him up. The beginning was tough for me. I was happy things were getting better, of course, but the medications he was under and the disorientation patients go through in the ICU where there is no day or night induced paranoid thoughts. The man I saw was not the same person I had sent to the doctor almost 4 weeks earlier. I knew it was the medication talking but it was still very hard to witness. Thankfully it did not last too long and toward the end of that 4th week in the ICU he was able to breathe almost entirely on his own, his lungs had started to clear out, and we were able to have normal conversations (if there is such a thing as normal in those circumstances). After that, we had to deal with the aftermath of the disease. I waited a few days to explain to him what had happened. He had no memory of any of it, thanks to the medications, so it came as a shock top him that he almost died several times in the past 4 weeks and that he missed several weeks of his daughter’s life. We also had to come to the realization that after losing close to 60 lbs and lying in bed for 4 weeks, there are no muscles left and walking is impossible. And nerve damage can be extensive. 2.5 years later he still suffers from the consequences of these horrible weeks, but it is getting better. Slowly. We had to make the decision of not moving to the new country after all, giving up (temporarily) on solving our two body problem. There was still no diagnosis and no clue as to how long it would take for him to be able to walk again and live a (almost) normal life. It took months of rehab for him to be able to walk again. It took months of me caring for him at home (in addition to taking care of our baby girl who was going through a phase of not wanting to let me out of her sight) since he could not walk safely by himself, could not climb the stairs at home to go to bed by himself, etc. Thankfully, I managed to cancel the sale of our condo (it turns out accepting an offer is not as binding as we thought, as long as we did not sign all the following papers), so I did not have to be homeless or find a last-minute rental while he was in the hospital.

So now when a mom or a dad dies on a tv show, or is in the hospital,  etc, we both become emotional. PTSD. I am emotional when the spouse of a friend passes away, even a distant friend, even someone I met only once or twice. PTSD. And when my Dad went to the hospital today for a prostate infection, I cried. He will probably be fine, but he is very weak and dehydrated, and it is difficult to not overreact and imagine the worse. If anything happened I would not even be able to fly there because I am almost 7 months pregnant. PTSD.

PTSD sucks.

A first blog about resilience

Resilience. I think it is a word that describes all, or most, scientists who opted to stay in academia and stick with it. Let’s face it, we get a lot of rejections in our job: not getting job interviews, not getting the job after interviewing somewhere, manuscripts getting rejected or subjected to harsh reviews, grant proposals declined, some of us may get negative feedback during academic personnel reviews, bad outside letters when coming up for major promotion, possibly being denied tenure, etc. The key is to be able to pick ourselves up afterwards and move on, revise and resubmit rejected proposals or papers, submit new ones go to more interviews, fight back when unfair criticisms are made even if they reactivated your imposter syndrome. This is hard. Many of us think about quitting at one point or another. And some do. But those who don’t and stay have to be resilient in order to be successful or even just to be good enough. I am not saying that leaving academia is for people who are not resilient. Deciding to leave can be as hard as deciding to stay, and for some people leaving is the way to move on and remain sane. But I am not sure one can stay in academia very long if one is not resilient.

Side note: from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, resilient means:

  • able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
  • able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

This second definition is also what defines the word “elastic“. Being an academic in the physical sciences, I find this a little funny, but perhaps only because I am a nerd.