Wednesday, December 21, 2011

(Eleven) months of blogging

Joining in on the end-of-the-year meme, despite not having blogged for a full year yet...

January: Lurking, some commenting. 

FebruaryAfter spending months reading, lurking, and periodically commenting on a number of blogs, I'm finally caving to the urge to create my own. 

March: You use a Gantt chart to help plan your wedding.

AprilThe next month isn't looking promising for advisorial feedback: his committee duties apparently require vast amount of reading, two (2) students are defending within the next month, the project funding roughly 1/3 of the group has an annual review, and he submitted a semi-speculative abstract months ago to a conference in May, and the student doing most of that work got stuck out of the country due to visa issues. (holy run-on sentence, Batman!)

May: At GiantU, there is a common complaint from undergraduate engineering majors that none of their classes cover some of the more practical things employers expect them to know, like Matlab coding. 

June: As mentioned in my wedding post, I mentioned Mr.ME and I are having a steampunk wedding. 

July: I should have the wedding picture post up soon, but there's some picture editing to be done first. 

August: Project A data frenzy is done, which means Project B data frenzy is now in full swing. 

September: The engineering school here at GiantU runs a training session for new TAs, and I have to say that I was surprised by how well done it was. 

October: So this is a topic that was mentioned on EngineerBlogs back in February, but in preparing for my first ever lecture, I've been very thankful for my rather extensive bookshelf. 

November: It has not been the most productive week of my life (other than knitting, which I learned this weekend). 

December: This semester has been my first real teaching experience, though by no means my first grading experience. 

So what have I learned? As soon as I get busy, my blogging drops to almost nothing, unless I'm super-stressed. I've learned that I'm not crazy, my advisor is, and that I really do love teaching, even when I find individual students frustrating. Now, to keep it going another 11 months...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Final Push

The final assignment of the semester is due today, which means I will be spending tonight and tomorrow grading so that grades can be turned in on time. At some point, I also need to pack, do several more loads of laundry, get keys to the cat sitter, and see if I can manage to breathe through my nose again...

I'm starting to look forward to next semester. For the first time, I won't have classes, as a student or TA. I have a fantastic undergrad working with me who is very motivated. I've realized that there's nothing I can do to get my advisor to read my manuscripts any faster, so I really have to figure out how to keep myself motivated in spite of him. Even though I have fewer distractions, I think next semester is going to be hard, partly because I won't be as busy. The less time I have available, the less I tend to procrastinate. With no other impositions on my time, I worry I won't get anything done...

Monday, December 12, 2011

End of the Semester

Today is the last day of lecture for my class here at GiantU, and I'm finally feeling a bit less busy. Which, as usual, means I'm getting sick. It seems that as soon as I stop running at full speed, the stupid cold I've managed to avoid all semester catches up with me. So expect the lack of thoughtful posting to continue for a few more days...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Luck and Research

Recently, an undergrad joined my research project, and I really feel that I won the lottery with this one. His project was supposed to be fairly straightforward, but we've been running into some unexpected obstacles, liking needing to rebuild executables. However, this morning he said that he's sort of glad things aren't working, because he feels that he's learning so much more this way. I am seriously lucky to have him working with me.

There are days when it seems that half (or most) of research depends on luck. Persistence is also important, but if you get lucky every nth time, it pays off to stick with it for at least n+1 times.

Of course, you still need to know how to take advantage of luck when it comes your way.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lessons from teaching

This semester has been my first real teaching experience, though by no means my first grading experience. I always knew I was a rather atypical student, but it's really been driven home this term. Here are a few of the things I've learned:

1. There are students who will come to office hours without a coherent question or concern, because they were told they ought to take advantage of them. They will sit there in silence, hoping someone else will start asking questions. It will be awkward the first few times.

2. Some students legitimately expect me to grade their assignment before they turn it in.

3. Prompt replies to emails are expected, even at 1 AM.

3a. These students are the least prompt about respond to requests via email.

4. There is a roughly inverse relationship between the length of a lab report and the quality of analysis.

5. Any simple assignment can be made complicated. Any complicated assignment can be made impossible.

6. A minimum number of things will break every lab session. This includes things you are breaking on purpose.

7. If you write lots of comments on reports, students ignore them. If you don't write them, they complain about the lack of feedback.

8. The native English speakers make the most interesting grammatical errors.

9. The department admins in charge of registration at GiantU have no respect for prerequisites, and will override the system so students can graduate "on time". Furthermore, our undergraduate advising system is not working. I would like be able to discuss moments of inertia in a junior level class without losing half of them because they haven't taken statics yet.

I've been writing up a list of comments for improving the course for next year, as requested by the professor. It's been a fun and interesting experience, and I'm glad he's encouraging us to reflect. I've also been flattered by the students asking if I'm TAing next semester so they can be in my section (sorry, fellowship says no). On the other hand, I'm excited by next semester. It will be the first semester since I was 5 where I have no classes of any type. Maybe I'll get real research done (ha!).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Negligent Blogger is Negligent

Things have been a bit quiet around here lately, partly because things have been rather unquiet offline. The course I'm TAing has multi-week labs, and the last one was a doozy. It was a complicated set of experiments, with numerous equipment failures, concepts the students had never encountered before (ferroelectricity) and they had to share data across groups and sections. We TAs had some major communications SNAFUs, so the data formatting was horrendously inconsistently, and labeling was inconsistent at best. All of this results in many, many more student emails of "I can't find ____ on the course site". The reports have been turned in at last, and are sitting in an imposingly large pile on my desk. 14 reports shouldn't be a full ream of paper, but conciseness is a concept that continues to elude them.

The last lab of the semester is on mechanical properties of materials, and so far, things are going much more smoothly. I swear the lab gremlins demand a certain number of things be broken each lab, but thankfully, they can be satiated with intentional fracture. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm vastly more comfortable with this equipment, or that there is considerably less jury-rigging involved with our setups... nope, nothing at all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mid-term panic

Even though I myself am not *taking* any classes this semester, I'm still feeling the mid-term crush. Part of this has to do with the class I'm TAing, as we want students to compare data across sections, which calls for a lot of extra effort from the TA's to make sure it's accessible. I'm also frustrated by the students who would much rather email me than read the damn handout.

On the other hand, I finally found an exercise class that 1) is on par with what my out-of-shape butt can handle and 2) fits in my schedule and budget. A friend convinced me to come with her to bellydancing class, and it's actually quite a lot of fun, but not going to destroy my joints.

What I really want right now is a vacation, but my Thanksgiving break promises to be full of grading.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keeping sane...

In spite of the busyness of TAing and the rest of my semester, I've been making a much more concerted effort this year to take care of myself and stay sane. Part of this has been taking up two more hobbies (because I clearly didn't have enough), knitting and spinning. On the other hand, these are both very transportable and fairly affordable, and take relatively little energy. They also take enough focus to help my brain disconnect from work for a brief while.

Still, I'm having more coding related dreams than I've had in quite some time, so clearly something's not working. What do you do to de-stress and keep sane?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Productivity is overrated...

It has not been the most productive week of my life (other than knitting, which I learned this weekend). This week I had my first guest post of at Engineering Blogs, but mostly I've been waiting for code to run. I'm at one of those awkward points where until this batch of problems gets cleared up, there's not too much progress I can really make on my main project.  I'm supposed to be meeting with an undergrad who will help run some of the final simulations and analysis code I need to finish up the Project That Won't Die. Last week, I managed to drag some actual feedback about my paper from my PI, so I have suggestions on how to make the next manuscript reviews go more quickly, once I get the last of the data to redraft the manuscripts.

TAing is going fairly well, in spite of the best efforts of the equipment sprites. Voltage slowly drifting downward while trying to measure a ferroelectric hysteresis loop is troubling. The default tech support solution (unplug it and try again) worked, but still no clue what went wrong. Unfortunately, due to the way the lab is organized, the students are writing several large reports, when I think they would really benefit from writing more, shorter reports. They clearly are struggling with certain aspects of scientific communication, and need more feedback than the class is currently giving them. This is also the largest group they've ever had taking the class at once.

I have no impending deadlines (which is an odd sensation), but my baseline stress levels are still super high. It's as though I've forgotten how to work when not under extreme pressure. Maybe I just need more time to decompress...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Deceptive publication records

So several of us in my research group, frustrated with the what feel like is a complete lack of papers coming out of our group and our PI's snail-like pace in reading them decided to see how no one has gotten mad at him for not publishing more (admittedly, he's tenured and has been for awhile, but GiantU doesn't tend to be a school for resting on one's laurels). The answer seems to be as a very minor collaborator on projects none of us were even remotely aware of. Collaboration can be a fantastic thing, but in this case, it really seems to be at the detriment of his own students. Only 1/3rd of the papers he's published since coming to GiantU from OtherGiantU have one or more of his graduate students on them. So overall, his numbers look fine (though not spectacular), but we aren't getting the papers.

I see a lot of people giving graduate students advice about selecting advisors reminding them to check publication records. However, just looking at how frequently the PI has published can be deceptive. Check the other authors: are they even at the same institution? Even better, check the student's publication records. While some fields may typically not publish before graduation, almost every department website I've looked at is out of date, so some of those students may have already graduated.

Also, a question I asked on Twitter earlier: in your group, are things like papers and grants announced? This blog was triggered by me finding a recently published paper where my advisor was a collaborator and one of the students who has since left the group was also a coauthor. I had no idea this paper existed until it popped up in my search. My PI recently was awarded an experimental grant, which we only discovered because we brought in a new student to work on a brand-new project and there was a sudden equipment buying binge.

Am I just being paranoid, or is this all totally normal practice in science?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Checklists and Checking Out

This semester, as previously mentioned, I'm TAing the junior level MSE lab course at GiantU. I have to say, I may be learning much more than my students. GiantU is a very highly ranked school in my field, while SnowTech is rather less prominent. Consequently, I had expected a slightly higher caliber of students who were rather motivated. What I've found is that instead, GiantU seems to really attracted students who have mastered the system, rather than the subject.

What do I mean by this? They want to know exactly what to do on every assignment to get the grade they think they deserve. I've been flat out asked for checklists of everything they are supposed to include in their lab write-ups. I refuse to give them this, because I'm looking for their ability to piece together an argument. However, I get the distinct impression that many of the other professors in the department have gotten in the habit of spoon feeding their undergraduates. It's also very clear that they expect me to be on-call 24 hours a day, given their email habits. They clearly learned these habits worked somewhere, and I find it somewhat disappointing.

The modern K-12 academic system can be gamed very, very easily, in the era of standardized testing. If I had not been in the International Baccalaureate program, it would have been fairly trivial for me to maintain a 4.0 without any real effort, because you always knew exactly what would be on most tests. Because it's hard to quantify, No Child Left Behind has shied away from creativity, and critical thinking. It's about jumping through the hoops exactly as you are told, not about finding a route around them.

I was at the early edge of NCLB in my home state. My sister, who's only a grade above me, had a very different K-12 experience because of the difference in the number of standardized tests we had to take. Now, the students I'm seeing have grown up entirely in the NCLB system, and it shows. They struggle mightily with open ended assignments. Yet, in all their attempts to figure out exactly what they need to do to get the grade, they ignore the things I tell them matter, like proofreading (grammar is 50% of the grade for reports in this course) and proper referencing. Not looking forward to the next round of grading...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Where has all the motivation gone?

So I was at a conference all of last week, which was simultaneously inspiring and disheartening. I came out of talks with all sorts of ideas of things that I could do. On the other hand, I kept thinking about how impractical and uninteresting what I've gotten done in that last year has been. This has been a frustrating year, to say the least. I've been project-hijacked by my advisor several times to produce data for abstracts he submitted without existing data, or based on data he expected from students who ended up leaving the group. Because of a possible scheduling conflict, I had to submit a poster to a conference in case he couldn't be there to give his talk.  I've been trying to cut back on the whining, but after last week, I'm just tired. My work didn't belong at that conference, but my advisor told everyone to submit abstracts so that he could answer "yes" at committee meetings when asked if he had any students at the meeting.

I also got to meet with his perpetual golden child who really is a very lovely person, and provides some hope that maybe I can be successful in spite of my PI. She also reassures me that nagging him really is my only route to get papers read. On the other hand, it's been ONE YEAR since I sent the first complete draft of my first manuscript to him, and the total feedback I've gotten was "Well, sometimes your writing is a bit choppy". This is not due to a lack of nagging...

It's also a bit depressing to meet friends who have completed their Master's programs and are out in industry, with responsibilities and interesting jobs.

So now, I'm back, with no real looming deadlines, and it's hard to motivate myself to do anything right now. Suggestions?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Science vs Engineering

This week, I am at a conference organized by several of the major professional societies of MSE, with a pretty heavy emphasis in the E. I have attended this conference three times now, each time for a radically different topic. My first time here, I fell into the Engineer category quite firmly, but now I fall pretty solidly into Science. Consequently, I feel a little out of place explaining my work to old colleagues. One if the first questions I'm asked is about the practical applications of what I'm doing. Right now, my work is on simple model systems, and any relation to practicality is tenuous at best.

The science vs engineering divide is also noticeable in comparing the undergrad programs at GiantU and SnowTech. SnowTech is very much Engineering oriented, with a focus on design and looking towards industry jobs. GiantU teaches as though they expect every student to continue on to grad school as a scientist. Yet I regularly have students who tell me they really appreciate hearing about the practical applications of the theory they are learning.

What I currently do may not show up in consumer products in the next decade, but I appreciate having the engineering background. So for now, I continue to sit on the ampersand of MS&E.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Presenting

Conferences are always a revelation in awkward presentations. I'm a bit of an anomaly among engineers, in that I have very little anxiety about public speaking. On the other hand, my PI is a visible bundle of nerves, the he is at least audible. Even with microphones, I've sat through several talks where I was straining to hear the speaker.

In theory, we are trained in presentation skills by our advisors. But what when the advisor has limited skills? There are plenty of people who are absolute experts in giving a compelling presentation: we just tend to call it acting. Perhaps we should start requiring basic acting classes for scientists. Maybe then I could hear them...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Learn all the things!

So this week, I'm at one of the giant meetings in my field, which happens to be in Ohio this year. As a computationalist, I'm rather out of place in the professional society environment, which is full of practical things. On the other hand, I like attending talks more, because more of it is new to me. It also really makes me wish I had the time/ resources to learn more characterization techniques.

I've also been contemplating recently what kind if post-doc I will want to do in the very distant future, when I maybe manage to graduate... While I like my research, what really excites me is teaching. I'm currently hoping to do some experimental work, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. My advisor isn't terribly helpful at this point, partly because he's been largely in hiding since my preliminary exam.

The experimental technique I really want to learn is NMR, which is probably the most directly useful for comparison to my particular simulations. There's not a good spectroscopy course at GiantU, but another nearby school supposedly has a good course I could audit. Assuming I ever had time...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Invisible fundamentals

This semester, I'm teaching a junior-level lab section. Consequently, there certain things I assume students  have learned at this point, and know were covered in their freshman level courses. I don't know if it's an issue of retention, or that they never really learned it the first time around, but there are certain basics of report writing that they've just missed.

There's some of the higher-level style issues, like use of 3rd-person passive voice instead of first person active voice. But for some students, they may be unaware of even more basic issues. For example, recently, I encountered a student who didn't know about Microsoft Equation Editor or the symbol menu, and has been using wikipedia and copy-paste to put equations into lab reports. Multiple students had to ask how to take a text file of comma separated values and open them in Excel or another graphing program.

While I was initially rather stunned, thinking about it, we never actually teach students how to use much of the software we expect them to use regularly, like Microsoft Office. Even if they had been taught at some point, the GUI has changed so drastically over the last few releases that they may no longer be able to find the tools. Even though these students are "digital natives", not everyone can learn software by poking around until it does what they want.

What other skills do you assume students should have by college?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace and Inspiring Women

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone!

I've talked before about some of the women I find inspiring as a scientist, my mother, my grandmother, and Professor Millie Dresselhaus. Today, I'd like to talk about some of the other women who have inspired me as a scientist.

Until I reached high school, every science teacher I had was female. Actually, until college, I had exactly one male science teacher. Of those women, the one who I remember best and inspired me most was my 8th grade science teacher. It was the first year we were really focusing on chemistry, instead of biology or earth science, and Ms. George did fantastic demos. She was energetic, and sarcastic enough to handle a bunch of 12 and 13 year old students. The day she lectured about dihydrogen monoxide, I was falling out of my chair trying to muffle laughs while she very sincerely talked about how much of this dangerous substance was being dumped into our oceans.

She also wasn't afraid to push students who could have coasted. The final lab of the year was meant to combine all the different analysis techniques we'd been learning to identify the components in a jar of "sludge". She had a list of possible ingredients on the wall. Most students were given a jar with 5-6 components. My partner and I got a jar with 9 (there were 20 potential choices).

So thank you, Ms. George, for making me work!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Lecture & Grading

Yesterday, I gave my first formal lecture in front of a class and survived. There were certainly things I could improve on (like the concept I had in my head exactly backwards), but the students were clearly attentive (since they caught my mistake), I got some excellent questions, and my timing wasn't nearly as horrible as I had been afraid of.  More than anything, I need to master the art of writing on the board while talking, and using chalk without the squawk.

I kind of hope that at some point, I can do a more lecture-intensive TA, but while I'm on fellowship funds, that seems illogical. Part of why I'm doing the lab this semester is because I already have the background for the material we're covering, so I can fit it into my schedule (relatively) painlessly.

I'm also starting to see the benefits of doing my high school service hours as a student grader for freshman English. It takes me much less time to go through grammar corrections than it takes my fellow TAs. My favorite gem from the most recent batch of labs was the auto-corrected misspelling which turned a statistics term into a literary term. Spellcheck is no substitute for proofreading.

I'm finally getting into the hang of my semester, and realizing I'm just never going to get much research done on lab days. Now, if I could just get Matlab to stop randomly seg faulting...

Monday, October 3, 2011

My Favorite References

So this is a topic that was mentioned on EngineerBlogs back in February, but in preparing for my first ever lecture, I've been very thankful for my rather extensive bookshelf. I was lucky that I could afford not to sell back textbooks as an undergrad, and my husband kept most of his, which means I've got a pretty good collection to draw from. Here are some of my favorite references:

Fundamentals of Materials Science and Engineering, W.D. Callister (also acceptable: Materials Science and Engineering: An Introduction)  This is the standard textbook of introductory materials science classes for a reason. It is fantastic! The index is thorough, the chapters are descriptively titles, and above all, it has some of the best figures. Materials science can be a very, very visual field, and knowing wheter it "looks right" is a critical skill to learn.

Undergraduate Instrumental Analysis, Robinson, Skelly Frame and Frame. This was honestly not a useful book when I got it for class, because in that class, we were always told what characterization equipment we would be using. Now, though, it's a great reference for any characterization technique, covering the basic physics of how it works, common pitfalls, and basic descriptions of the equipment.

(online, because there's 22 freaking volumes of awesome) ASM Handbook Online (subscription required) While my university has a subscription to these handbooks, being a member of the ASM professional society will also get you access. While the focus is on metals, since it used to be the American Society of Metals, these are a great resources for finding teaching examples. If you're a mechanical engineer with a metals question, they are a great place to start your search.

I could probably keep going through my bookshelf, but we quickly get into rather more specialized texts. These are great when you have a very specific issue, but for more general questions, I turn to these first.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Unproductive Productivity

I have gotten tons done in the last week, but almost none of it has been research related. Between the dishwasher breaking, covering for another TAs lab section, grading and various early semester meetings, there's been lots of busyness without feeling like anything has gotten *done*. Today is my first day in a while without anything scheduled, so hopefully I can hide out in my office and do research work for a change... of course, then I have to figure out which project to work on.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Away from my desk

This week has been a definite anomaly, in that I've spent more time in a lab than at a desk. Being that I'm a computationalist, generally speaking, my desk *is* my lab. However, I'm TAing the junior level lab course for the department, and between the lab this week and training and prep for next week, I've mostly been in the lab getting nice and gritty.

The students this week get to see casting up close and personal, generally for the first time. Last week, they carved foam parts, which we mounts to runners at the foundry before making a sand mold. This method is called "lost foam" (though more generally it's lost wax, but we're using foam...), and you actually leave the pattern in the sand. Then, when you pour the metal, it burns up.

I'd forgotten how much I loved poking around the machine shop, but more than that, I'd forgotten how jazzed I get when I'm teaching. As the TA with the most prior casting experience, and with the professor out of town, I've taken point for this lab (though my first formal lecture isn't for another two weeks). I find teaching super-energizing, to the point where Mr.ME gets annoyed with how bouncy I am when I get home.

Because GiantU, unlike SnowTech, does not have an on-site foundry, we had to drive to the site, which was a fun chance to talk to students in a less formal setting. I also took the chance to ask them about how my advisor is as a teacher (answer: much better than he is as an advisor). He's even teaching one of the harder courses in the curriculum, so it's all the more impressive. Of course, it's still before the first exam, so they may yet change their minds.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Email Avalanche

With the beginning of the semester comes an avalanche of new emails. Every student org has ten events they want to advertise, we have daily construction bulletins, and seminars across the college of engineering. This all comes across a moderated list, so it tends to come in spurts as it gets approved, usually around 10AM, well after I've moved into the actual work portion of my morning.

 This semester, I also get the joy of student emails, since I'm a TA. These have been... interesting. I get more than my fellow TAs for this course because my name is first on the syllabus. My favorite has been the request to go over a student's report draft before they submit it *as a draft*. Am I supposed to mark it twice?

I'm super excited about next week, tough. My lab class is taking a field trip! To a (small) foundry! Molten metal!!! (I'm not crazy.... just excited). As much as I love my theoretical work, I miss poking around in the machine shop and foundry., so TAing the lab class is pretty fantastic for me.

Do you have any student email stories to share?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Transition to Candidacy

Passing my prelims was fantastic, in that I felt like I was actually *done* with something. Except for the part where I really am not done with anything: I'm just starting.

For me, the first two years of graduate schools have been like a series of mad dashes from one deadline to the next. The coursework race, the (insert conference here) scrambles, the speculative abstract panics. There was always another major deadline looming. This week, for the first time, my advisor and I had a discussion about what I should be working on (!) to generate papers (that maybe he'll read?) and make progress, without any specific deadlines!

I hadn't realized to what an extent my life has been ruled by specific deadlines until suddenly, it's not. Yes, I have two conferences this fall, but I already have most of the data, because I was actually involved in writing and submitting the abstracts.

Throughout my scholastic career, I've rarely had a deadline more than six months away. If I hadn't been a warped teenager already looking at graduate schools, you rarely plan more 2-3 years ahead. Now, I have to somehow shift from the last 16+ years of sprinting to running a marathon...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Carnival on Theoretical/Computational Sciences: Molecular Dynamics

Thanks to GMP:

As I've talked about before, my specialty within materials science in molecular dynamics. I wanted a change of pace from the research I had done as an undergraduate, which was in metal fatigue and creep. I had spent a lot of time (some creep tests literally last years) on studying *what* happened, and I wanted to start answering *why*. Fracture mechanics is a surprisingly young field, with the earliest theoretical models dating back to WWI, but really only achieving broad interest in the 1950s. Many of the models are empirically derived, especially in composite systems.

In the interests of remaining pseudonymous, I can't talk too much about the specific systems I study without very quickly revealing my research group.  Basically, I study interfaces between polymer and nonpolymer systems. These are particularly interesting, because there's no good way to study them experimentally without fundamentally changing the structure, and therefore the properties, of the interface. 

Molecular dynamics (MD) is an atomistic method, which can generally tackle problems in nanometer length scales and nanosecond time scales. If you're designing an engine, it may not seem particularly applicable, but the information we gather at these scales can be fed into continuum level models. In turn, MD often turns to quantum mechanical techniques like density functional theory to improve our models.

I love how broadly applicable molecular dynamics is. You can study everything from mechanics of everyday composites to the structure of materials in the earth's core. I also like bridging the gap between fundamental science and practical engineering: by studying the atomistic mechanics at an interface, you can get a better idea of what controls those interacts, and predict novel materials for adhesion without some of the expenses associated with traditional experiments. 

I don't always love the coding side of my job: my formal training in programming is limited, and most of the intro classes at GiantU teach Java and Python instead of C++ and Fortran. Fortunately, there are some fantastic open source codes for MD, such as LAMMPS. Because GiantU has it's own high performance computing facility, I'm lucky enough to have some very awesome system administrators to help compile code that's very well parallelized, and so that's not a major part of my job, like it might be at a smaller school.  

Everything I do is fundamentally informed by experimental results, even when exact experiments don't exist. If my bulk materials don't have a realistic density, or realistic elastic properties, I can't confidently draw conclusions from my simulations. This does seem to mean that I end up reading twice as many papers as my experimental counterparts, who tend not to explore the computational literature they way I end up exploring the experimental literature. However, I really do like what I'm doing, or else I would definitely be doing something else by now...  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Engage Headless Chicken Mode

My preliminary oral exam is in three days, I couldn't send my document to my committee until yesterday because my advisor kept wanting to make major changes to it, and the office has been ~90 degrees all weekend, even though outside is a totally reasonable temperature. Oh, and tomorrow, I teach my first lab section.  Aah!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

TA Training

The engineering school here at GiantU runs a training session for new TAs, and I have to say that I was surprised by how well done it was. While as a lab TA, there was a lot I'm not going to have to think about, it was still interesting and dynamic, and I may have actually learned something. Things I think they did really well:

1)Session changeups: we weren't just sitting in a room being talked at the entire time
2)Peer feedback: we weren't just getting critiqued by some "teaching expert", we were giving each other feedback
3) Variable session sizes: You interacted with a wider group of people, and were able to do activities like mini-lectures and still have time for good feedback discussions
4) Coffee supplies: grad students aren't usually morning people, so ample coffee supplies were appreciated

The less good:
1) For the love of bladders, BATHROOM BREAKS!
2) Since this is the engineering session, please stop using humanities examples: we aren't going to ask students about their favorite quotation from a thermodynamics book
3) Break up Discussion and Lab sessions
4) The handout mountain: many of the session instructions were given in the powerpoint, in the powerpoint print out, and as a separate sheet

I'm still nervous about teaching a lab, particularly because I have the first section of the week, where we get to sort out all the bugs, but I'm super excited to spend time in a *lab* instead of on a computer.

Also, preliminary oral exam next week...  aaaaah!!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spiffy Material of the Indeterminate Time Period: Glass

The odds are pretty good that you are within 5 feet of a piece of glass right now (unless you have someone read you my blog posts out loud, in which case it might be farther). In fact, glass, in the form of fiber optics, was almost certainly involved in you getting to this blog.

The term glass, as commonly used, actually refers to class of materials with similar properties (like metal), rather than a specific material (like copper). The defining feature of glass is the lack of crystal structure. Unlike typical metals or ceramics, glasses have no defined order once you move more then a few atoms away from your initial position. This results in some unique behaviors, such as a viscosity transition that depends on temperature (excitingly called the glass transition temperature). Certain glasses are almost infinitely recyclable.

Most glasses you encounter on a daily basis are silica-based (SiO2), from the Pyrex labware and cookware (borosilicate) to cheap glass bottles (soda lime silicate) to smartphone screens (alkali-stuffed aluminosilicate) to LCD screens (aluminosilicate). If you're old-fashioned (yet still on the internet), your CRT monitor contains multiple types of glass, including a very lead-rich glass for the funnel, which is now posing a problem for waste management as people toss their old CRT displays for shiny new flat-screens. Glasses, at least the kind for vision, are typically *not* made out of glass anymore.

In terms of materials science, there are two type of compounds found in glasses: network formers and network modifiers. Network formers are what gives glass its structure and rigidity. Common network formers include silica, borate and alumina. Network modifiers typically are ionizing oxides, and are very helpful in lowering the working temperature glass. Modifying compounds are things such a soda, lime (CaO), potassium oxide, and other alkali oxides. These don't include compounds like cobalt, or gold, which are used to color the glass, but in rather smaller quantities.

Glass can be processed in a fantastic number of ways as well. They can be die-formed, like for drinking glasses, blown, float cast, or drawn into fibers. Some experiments even study glasses formed while levitated. Torchwork typically involves welding manipulator rods on, heating the glass with a propane-oxygen torch (glass has a very high melting point), and pulling the glass with those rods, or various tools.

Glass has also been used by humans for thousands of years, and has been traced as far back as Mesopotamia. To put this in context, this is during the early Bronze age. It's been a part of human history for a very, very long time. And that's pretty darn spiffy.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Back from Guest Blogging

I'm back from my stint over at Scientopia, just in time to start cramming for my preliminary defense. I've got a committee, I've sent my document to my PI for approval, but next is the big hurdle: scheduling. It's hard enough to find my PI for 30 minutes, but I have to get 4 professors in one place for 2 hours.

Now, off to prepare the slides for the presentation...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Advisor Frustration

Not cross posting, because I'm just whinging. Feel free to ignore.

I'm in the process of writing up my thesis proposal, which has included a rather vast literature search, covering the experimental results for various common composite materials and the simulation results for such composites and their constituent materials. My advisor has finally agreed to my magical idea to integrate The Project That Won't Die (still) into my Alleged Thesis Topic. The PTWD is on material A, which happens to be a rather common composite material, so we're adding it in as a second reinforcement material to study, which means I can incorporate a lot of my existing results into earlier chapters. Huzzah. But.

In doing this whole literature search thing, it's becoming painfully apparent that the PTWD would be a much more logical thesis topic. Seriously, we've got data for four papers *so far*, and I've got ideas for several more. Neglecting his editing speed, it would not be unreasonable for me to be part way done writing my dissertation when my DoD fellowship runs out in 2013. However, it's painfully clear that he's relying on me to produce data to make the lab's productivity look better to grants that I'm not funded on. When I asked about just changing topics, the answer was no, because he says he can't find funding to support the PTWD (which I believe).

So back to working on the early stages of my Alleged Thesis Topic.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Editing Efficiently

Also available here

My regular readers are aware of some of my issues with my PI's time management skills. One particular issue is how long it takes him to give feedback on data and manuscripts. His approach is to immediately starting editing sentence by sentence, refining every detail, without reading through the overall paper.

Because he's a) busy and b) been busy so long he's got a backlog, this can mean that even if he's actually working on the paper (which is a whole separate can of worms), it can still be two months before you recieve *any* kind of feedback except by accident. Accidental feedback is things like while jetlagged, he mentioned that he was working on my paper, but the flow was rough. When I went and re-read it, my paragraphs were jumping all over the place like bunnies on speed, which is just how my brain seems to work. So I calmed the bunnies down, reorganized some thing and sent it back the next day. This apparently surprised him. I just thought it was the point of feedback...

This is also a problem because it means that he doesn't look at the data or conclusions until he's had the paper for quite awhile, and that's the feedback most of the students in my group are looking for. Does the model seem reasonable? Do the conclusions make sense? Are there more experiments/simulations I should be running?

When I'm editing for others, I usually try to read through once to get a feel for the overall flow, and then go back and start fixing the little things. I read absurdly quickly, so I find this technique rather helpful. It also gives me a chance to spot any big problems more quickly.

Editing my own stuff, I do it the other way around (since I already know where I'm trying to go). I have to take time away from the document before I can edit for flow, because otherwise my train of thought just follows the same tracks.

What's your editing strategy?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Engineers in Pop Culture

Cross posted at Scientopia

Being an engineer, I'm always excited by realistic engineers in pop culture. Unlike doctors, lawyers and paper salesmen, rather few sitcoms include engineers as a major character, let alone considering an engineering firm as a setting. The first thing that comes to most people's minds when you mention engineers is, somewhat unfortunately, Dilbert. While there are certain truths about the corporate world that come through, most engineers I know don't have Dilbert-type jobs. I'm not saying that Dilbert isn't funny, but I think it is a very narrow picture of what engineering really entails. Still, I've heard perfectly brilliant friends say "I don't want to go into engineering. I don't want to be Dilbert!".

Sci-fi is the major home of engineers, with Star Trek of course having an entire engineering department who get to do exciting things and save the day by crawling through the Jeffries tubes. However, sci-fi readers tend to be a bit more engineering-minded to start with, so it's not really reaching an audience that is as generally unaware of what engineers do.

So what about outside of sci-fi?

One of the better examples I've run into recently, oddly, is from a fantasy book about magical horses. Storm Warning, by Mercedes Lackey, has a group of engineers and mathematicians helping identify patterns in a series of magical disturbances to predict the next storm, and translating engineering concepts, like harbor breakwaters, to this new situation. Another favorite example is from the Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. Yes, they're called artificers, but it's a similar concept. It's a high fantasy adventure, but it takes an honest look at some of the realities of being a design engineer. My favorite moment from the first two books is the sequence designing a magical arrow catcher, which while it operates partly by magic, still relies on physics to function.

There's also MacGyver, and if they would admit that what they do is really engineering, the Mythbusters. In fact, you were to ask people to give an example of a famous engineer (who is a real person), Grant Imahara would be pretty high on the list. I think Grant is a fantastic example of the non-Dilbertian side of engineering, plus he's considered one of the Bay area's most eligible bachelors.

Does anyone have good examples of real or realistic engineers in pop culture/fiction?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Finding Your Committee

Cross posted over at Scientopia!

As of yesterday, I officially have a full committee of people who have agreed and are interested in my project. Huzzah!

My program is a bit odd in the requirements to advance to candidacy. At this point, I've passed my qualifying exams/coursework, and the next major hurdle is the preliminary proposal of thesis work. We have to put together at least part of our thesis committee at this point, though it's highly recommended you try and find a complete committee. Since this can be a daunting process, I felt I should share my steps to finding my committee members.

Step One: Look up your committee requirements

How many people do you need? Are you required to have certain balance of members inside and outside of your department?

Step Two: Identify the types of expertise you need

If you're doing computation on a particular system, such as in my case, is there someone doing experiments on a similar system? Are the other people doing similar experiments on different systems, if you're an experimentalist? If you're doing something that is new to your lab, is there someone else at your university using similar techniques? Faculty websites are a fantastic way to look up this sort of information. Most importantly, have a list of more people than you actually need for your committee. Professors are busy people. They may not have time to be on you committee, so be sure to have backups (but never tell them they are your backup!)

Step Three: Set up a meeting

This is, for me, the hardest part. What do you say? I've been approaching this with the idea of "Brief but thorough". My emails have looked something like this:
Prof. Blah

I am a student working with Pf. Blarg in the process of putting together a thesis commitee. My proposed topic is BasketWeaving, which relates to your work in FiberPreparation. Would it be possible to meet at sometime in the near future? I am unavailable ___, but otherwise flexible.

Miss MSE

Step Four: The meeting itself

Sell your project. If you don't sound excited about what you're doing, they have no real motivation to agree to invest time and effort in being on your committee. It's also important to be clear on exactly why you think they would be a helpful addition to your committee (see Janus for the professorial side of this issue)

Once you have your committee comes the fun part: scheduling!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

TV Workout

I had a brilliant inspiration for a new exercise plan, if I only a) had a treadmill in my apartment or b) BBC America/ a DVD player in the apartment complex gym: Watch and episode of Doctor Who, and every time the Doctor or his companions are running, you run. It sounds like a great interval training program to me!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vertigo and Productivity

I have now been slightly dizzy on and off for 4 days, mostly on. This can stop any time now...

Today's guest post at Scientopia is a rehash of an earlier post here.

I have now officially found people willing to be on my committee! Now, to find a two hour block of time that at least 3 of the 4 can attend... Did I mentioned I'm one of four people in my group doing a preliminary proposal in the next month?  This is why I was originally aiming for May or July. Thankfully, next week marks the end of the summer conference season for my lab group, so I can finally go back and figure out things that went wrong back in June instead of producing slides for my advisor's speculative abstracts.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Posting at Scientopia!

In totally awesome news, I'm guest blogging over at Scientopia for the next two weeks. Some of it will be rehashing things I've posted on this blog, but some new content will sneak its way in too.

This week, my main focus is on piecing together my thesis proposal, and the last bits of data for my PI's talk in Korea next week. This weekend, though, I get to go see mountains! My mom is flying my sister and I out to Denver for a girls' weekend, so I should get some much needed stress relief and sunshine.

I've also been trying out Mendeley while putting together my proposal, as my PI's preferred software, Bookends, refuses to talk to Word on my computer, which more or less defeats the point of a reference manager. (I know, Microsoft is evil, but my advisor refuses to use anything else, so no LaTex for me) Mendeley has the advantage that if I go back to a PC or Linux machine, I don't have to rebuild my entire reference library. It's also a wonderful GUI to work with. Really, the only downside for me at this point is my advisor's general opposition to changing software and all things open source. If I can find some way to import existing Bookends databases to Mendeley, though, I might be able to convince him.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Demographic Results

Behold! Poll results! There's at least twice as many responses as I was expecting, which was the first surprise. I was also surprised by the even split between grad students and professors.

As I try and prepare for my proposal in the next month or so, I hope to do a series of blogs on the different components as I go. Possible future blogs include finding your committee, tips on literature searches, and the differences between the written and oral proposals.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

100 posts down...

Huzzah! I've made it to my 100th post! Only took me 6 months (exactly!). I'm still finding my "blogging voice", but I'm amazed I've made it this far.

There have been discussion of serious(ish) science. We've talked about wedding planning, alternative uses for cosmetic remover, stress, stress, STEMmoms and grandmothers, and occasionally, the perpetual internet favorite, kittens.

What's next?

I have no idea, I'm still making it up as I go.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Conference Lessons

Apparently will I was away, my blog got listed on Inside Higher Ed's Around the Web, which is totally awesome and unexpected. Hello to any new readers!

Last week's conference was my first time attending a specialty conference, instead of a more general mega-conference. It was wonderful to get to really know people, even if it's not in my thesis field. I learned a lot of science, but I also learned a lot about completely unrelated things, like fire trucks, nuclear waste managements, and the Episcopal church. This conference really encouraged spousal attendance of the social events, making it the first conference I've met a priest at.

Things I learned from the conference:

1) Talking to people socially at lunch and coffee break is a great way to get them to ask questions about your science later. Even if you know no one, just ask to join the table/circle, and listen for a while. Next time you see them, they may actually start a conversation with you.

2) Presenting a poster after your PI gives a talk brings more people to your poster, and gives you a chance to clarify those things your PI may be overselling. Unfortunately, my PI isn't very fond of this method, so I may not have many more opportunities for this type of thing.

3) Being visually distinctive can be a very good thing. I was wearing a rather unique hat for the outdoor portions of the conference (again, more social events than I'm used to), and people would start conversations with me about my hat which could then meander towards the science.

4) Lessons in how to effectively nag my advisor from his former student. Since my advisor tends to be cranky when his blood sugar is low and forgets to eat, bringing pastries to meetings can help, apparently.

5) Your thesis research doesn't define what you do by any means. I've heard this before, but talking to older professors, it was really good to hear that with specific examples.  It also made me feel better about working on such unrelated projects, because it'll help open up a wider range of post-doc options later.

6) Networking is partly about being in the right place at the right time: by sitting near the right person, I was told about a faculty opening (if I were actually graduating) that I may otherwise not have found out about because it's a cross-department listing (i.e., an EE department looking for a materials person).

7) Lots of ways to simply expand on the PTWD and make the second pair of papers more substantial stand-alone papers, instead of merging them into one.

8) People are really nice about lending their cellphones when yours has tragically died. I was able to actually call my husband on his birthday briefly, and schedule a taxi courtesy of other people's phones.

9) Playing certain pieces as an instrumentalist ruins them for future listening. I still really dislike Beethoven's Violin Concerto, even though I last played it in 2003.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Back from ConferenceLand

The last few weeks have been a bit ridiculous, and I pretty much dropped off the face of the internet last week due to limited access (i.e., only at the hotel).

I have also been dragged kicking and screaming into the smartphone era, following the tragic death of my beloved WalkmanStupidPhone. Given my carrier, the non-smart phone options were hideously limited, and I now own yet another Apple product. Sigh. On the other hand, I won't have the internet-less issue quite as frequently in the future.

The poster went well, and my advisor didn't make too many ridiculous conjectures from my data in his talk, so on the whole, a pretty good conference. I met many very interesting people, and it really underlined that the Project That Won't Die could very easily be fleshed out to become a thesis, if only my advisor felt there were any money in it. Back to the Project My Thesis proposal is On, for another talk my advisor is giving in two weeks.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Apologetic Cat Pictures

Project A data frenzy is done, which means Project B data frenzy is now in full swing. Consequently, I'm out of brain power to post something meaningful, so I give you instead a slightly staged photo of my cats. 

Staged in that the small cat (Rory) was placed next to the large cat (George) and the photo was taken before one of them bothered to wander off.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Since it's a busy day, no full blog post. However, I'm curious to know who reads my ramblings. Stats tell me where y'all are from, but not much else. Hence, a poll!

What best describes you?
Undergraduate student
Graduate student
Industry Engineer
Lost and confused Googler
None of the above: I'll explain in comments free polls

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Speculative Abstracts and Golden Children

... are the bane of my existence. Because my advisor wasn't willing to say no to an invited talk, in an area in which no one in my group is actively working, I now have major deadline convergence, between the Project That Won't Die (PTWD) and the Project My Thesis (proposal) is On (PMTpO). Combined with recent server downtime for maintenance, I'm alternating between panicked analysis/coding and thumb twiddling while I wait for something to run.

PTWD is producing the data for his invited talk, while PMTpO needs to have results for the annual funding review (we'll ignore that I'm a fellowship student). I think under normal circumstances, my advisor might have been sane enough to say no to the invited talk, but the invitation was from his perpetual Golden Child, who somehow remains the golden child, despite having left for a professorship position three years ago.

This isn't the first time my advisor submitting abstracts has resulting in non-thesis work for me, requiring generation of fairly substantial amounts of data in short times. However, I've been here for 2+ years now, and I can't recall this happening to other students in my group. I'm chalking it up to egocentric obliviousness, but my code is done for the moment, and it's time to switch from thumb-twiddling to panic.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dealing With Data

When I arrived at GiantU, I got involved in a project to understand how scientists deal with data, how the Information Sciences can help, and how to get scientists to start sharing data. I've learned more about metadata than I ever wanted to, but I've also realized this: dealing with data is largely a personal issue. The knee jerk reaction seems to be to declare that we need standards. However, I feel XKCD describes the issue with standard succinctly:

The project here involves the Information Science people, biologist, and materials scientists. The biologists seem to have it (comparatively) together, especially for gene sequencing. MSE, on the other hand, is a mess. Within a lab group, there may be some standards for how data is organized and formated (behold the power of nested folders and descriptive file names), but there's very little agreement as what is the data, and what is the metadata (i.e., descriptive information). If you're tracking rainfall in the Pacific Northwest basin, there is a fairly discrete list of data/metadata you need to report. Time frame of data collection, geographic coordinates, amount of precipitation, etc.

Materials science can be very process driven (remember the tetrahedron?) and so if you're tracking the density of carbon precipitates in a bar sample, you need the precipitate count and the bar size, but you also need the composition, the specimen manufacturing history, the heat treating history, the sectioning method, the polishing method, the counting technique and microscopy method, just to start with. So while the final data may be density of carbon precipitates, the *main* data is more or less everything else leading up to it. Several years ago, there was a project to develop a markup language for materials science, sponsored by some of the major professional societies. This conservative list still came up with 39 tags, most of which require significant text for any given data point.

There is an increasing push for researchers to share data, but in what format? Who decides what format? Right now, the biggest decider for raw data formats is the software you're using, which can depend on your equipment manufacturer, and may be adjustable. What counts as data?

Many of the Information Science folks feel very passionately about the issue, but seemed to think of it as an issue of building an appropriate database. The overwhelming reaction they've had in working with us has been "We never realized how much metadata you had".

Open data is a nice philosophy, but there are a lot of barriers to be overcome, far beyond where the data will be stored.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I'd have something witty to say today, but my code is being mysteriously buggy, and there's a heat index of 110 right now, so my brain is out of spare wit.  I'm not meant for warm and muggy...

EDIT: Oh goody, now the warn us that they're going to have to minimize cooling in non-critical areas, because the air conditioners are overstressed.  So fun...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Safety Training

Since I am a computationalist at GiantU, I've gotten away with not sitting through OSHA training for two whole years. However, I'm tentatively TAing a lab course this fall, so I had to go sit in a  dark room and listen to a rather quiet man talk about gloves for 30 minutes, plus everything else.

Because it's summer, they only offer the combined safety class, which meant I also got an hour of lecturing about blood-borne pathogens and other biological hazards. Surprisingly, this safety training spent rather little time on scare tactics compared to other training I've done, and almost nothing about espionage (a big feature of both LargeManufacturingCompany and NationalLab trainings).

Even though most of it wasn't personally relevant, it was rather reassuring to know that GiantU has a pretty rigorous lab safety program. They were very keen to reiterate "if it seems unsafe, you can ask us for help". Hopefully people actually do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Conference Presentations

I have finally learned when my presentation at this fall's MS&T conference will be (one of the largest conferences in my field), and boy, is it a crappy time slot. The conference runs Monday through Thursday, and I'm scheduled for one of the last time slots on Thursday. I didn't expect high attendance at my session anyhow, but I may have an audience that consists solely of other people presenting in my session and a few advisers.

Worse, all of the networking events/sessions I want to attend are on Monday. I'm still waiting to hear when the other students in my lab group are scheduled to present, but it's hard to justify the expense of staying the extra nights if they aren't presenting until later either, particularly since my fellowship has no travel support.

When do you find is the worst time to give a conference talk?

Monday, July 18, 2011

How Marching Band Made Me a Better Presenter

One topic that seems to pop up a lot in the academic blogging community is how to give better presentations, or how women can command respect. Many people rather more qualified than I have commented on the rules of Power Point, and Better Posters is a fantastic resource.  However, most often, it's the speaking part that people seem to really struggle with. After four years of marching and 4 years of anti-m******* band, I've learned a few things that help me present more effectively. While I may not be a renowned public speaker, I'm pretty sure I don't suck at it. So here's some of the things that I learned that I think make a difference:

1) How to stand "at ease": Standing up straight conveys confidence to your audience, as well as making you feel more confident. However, many people tend to also become very tense when they try and stand up straight. By standing at ease, with your feet spaced at roughly shoulder width and deliberately relaxing your shoulders, you still look confident, but much less tense.

2) How to breathe properly: Ok, so you aren't fainting from a lack of oxygen, and you've been breathing your whole life. That doesn't mean you're doing it in the most effective way properly. When you take a deep breath, does your chest move first? Then you're doing it WRONG. To fill the lungs fully, you have to start at the bottom. Musicians learn to do this to maximize phrases and support tonal quality. Taking deeper, controlled breaths can slow you heart rate and calm down some of those presentation nerves. It also feed directly into my next point.

3) How to speak loudly (without yelling): Project from the diaphragm. Volume shouldn't come from the throat, it should come from lower. By using air to support your voice, you have a more solid tone that will carry more effectively. For women with higher-pitched voices, thinking about speaking from the gut instead of the head can help shift your tone down a bit, which tends to help you sound a bit more mature.

4) The importance of pauses: Take a few moments and listen to Shenandoah: (it's ok, I'll wait)

It's a very fluid piece, and it seems like there's always something happening. But if you pay attention, there are certain places where everyone seems to stop for a breath, creating more interest in the line that will follow. By pausing, you can subtly emphasize the statement following your pause. Use this as a time to take a proper breath. For a true masterpiece of pausing, Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man is hard to beat:

Sometimes, just by thinking about little things, like breathing, rather than focusing on what word you are going to say next, you can seem much more confident. And if you ever need to find a marching band geek to help you, just mention how amazing you think John Phillips Sousa and wait for them to come out of the woodwork (warning: there are very few moderate opinions on Sousa, especially amongst brass players).

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reference Lists

I'm in the process of polishing a manuscript, as well as preparing for my preliminary thesis proposal. One thing I've noticed is a lack of standard for how many references a paper is expected to have. In my subfield, there seems to be an average of 30-40, but I've seen from 20 to 120 (neglecting review papers).

What's average in your field?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not Everyone Should Go to College

Once upon a time, before I accidentally became a computationalist, I was educated as a classical metallurgist. Consequently, I spent a decent amount of time in machine shops and foundries. I spent a summer working for Large Manufacturing Company, and spent a decent amount of time interacting with guys who didn't have a college degree, but knew more than I ever would about how machines work.  And while my parents are engineers, my mom's family and Mr. ME's family are mostly very blue-collar people. Not all of them have a college education, and several have degrees that have nothing to do with their careers. College wouldn't have gotten them where they wanted to go in life.

College gets more expensive every year (Mike the Mad Biologist has some lovely numbers here). The Chronicle of Higher Education asked the question "Are too many students going to college?" Most of the panelists seem to avoid the main question, but as academics, there's a certain amount they have invested in getting more students in the door. They focus on things like the wage premium. However, that wage premium is relative to all people without degrees. What about the difference between a bachelor's degree and trade school? I think the gap narrows dramatically then.

We need welders. We need plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, glassblowers. But we also need to stop telling every high school student that they should go to college. I had friends in high school, who were academically gifted, but knew that what they really, really wanted to do with their lives was fix things. They were lucky to have parents who supported that, and to live in a school district that had courses that would help them get their technical certification. There are some people who are not suited to a desk job. There are some people, who after 12 years in the US educational system, want to learn something practical, not theoretical. Why are we trying to convince them to go to college, an increasingly expensive proposition? Why is making money more important to our definition of success than being satisfied with your job? When did going into a trade stop being considered a good option?

This is also one of the things I love about the steampunk community. It's very much a maker's movement, with a strong appreciation from craftsmanship. Instead of throwing things away when they broke, building them well, and fixing them.  My college education has taught me a lot about thermodynamics and Newtonian physics, but that won't help me fix my car.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Outreach: Why High School Teachers Matter

One of the materials science professional societies, ASM (which used to stand for the American Society of Metals, but now just stands for ASM), runs a series of camps for high school teachers to learn about materials science. It's a multi-year program, and for a week each year, they learn about some of the basics of MSE, and do experiments they can take back into their own classrooms. While the NSF Broader Impact criterion typically seem like they encourage K-12 outreach by working with students, I think working with the teachers can make more sense.

  • Teachers are more enthusiastic and interested learners. If you have a group of 30 teachers, you have a group of 30 people who probably want to be there. If you have a group of 30 high schoolers, you probably have 2-3 who really want to be there, and at least one who would rather be *anywhere* else.

  • One teacher reaches hundreds of students. Teaching 30 teachers about science, and what scientists do, potentially reaches thousands of kids over years. Working directly with students reaches those students, and  some of their peers. 

  • Teachers can tie in new concepts into the curriculum much more effectively, because they know what else is actually covered.
This is not to say that I think we should stop running student-directed outreach in the slightest. Summer science camps are a fantastic thing, and many of my peers went into engineering because of similar experiences. It also gives kids a chance to explore an area that may not be feasible for their school to have a program in, due to demand/budget/classroom space. However, teaching teachers is a great way to reach a wider audience. For a field like MSE, which many students don't even know exists until partway through college (and some not  until they've graduated and gotten a job), having potentially interested kids know the field exists is a pretty good start.

Monday, July 11, 2011

New Kitten!

I totally had meaningful posts about real-world issues lined up, but I got a new kitten! And because this is the internet, kitten pictures trump intellectual content any day.

Rory, aka Mini-Me:

Friday, July 8, 2011

This is the project that never ends....

My advisor was in town briefly yesterday, and managed to stop by the office in the sub-24 hour period he was going to be in the correct time zone. He's finally started reading the manuscript that's been sitting on his desk longer than I'm comfortable admitting. Foolish me, I was hoping this would be a sign that the associated project might wrap up sometime soon.

Despite the fact that the funding for this project ran out over a year ago, and I'm supported by a completely different project (i.e., my alleged thesis topic...), half of our brief meeting time was spent with him talking about all the things he wants to do next for this project. Note that this project was supposed to only be for my first summer, to get me acquainted with molecular dynamics, and help the post-doc working on it wrap up his papers.  So a project that was originally intended to last 3-6 months has now taken two years, and the papers *still* haven't left the building.

I'm reluctant to simply announce that I'm done with this particular branch of work, because I'm sitting on three more manuscript drafts, and I would like them to make it out the door sometime before I manage to. On the other hand, the longer I'm working on this first project, the longer it's going to take me to get fully entrenched in my supposed thesis project. It doesn't help that it takes some serious shoe-horning to try and get both of these projects into a thesis together in any sort of semi-coherent fashion.

Any suggestions for how to tell my advisor that I would like to work on my thesis project full-time?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

MSE 501: Molecular Dynamics, An Introduction

I've discussed the sheer number of subspecialties in materials science before. I'd like to go into a bit of depth on my personal subspecialty, simulation. My work is in molecular dynamics (MD). The linked Wikipedia article is fairly technical. Fundamentally speaking, molecular dynamics uses Newton's First Law to determine the motion of atoms or particles according to a force equation. Particle interaction forces are described using one of many possible forms of the potential energy equation, and by integrating F=ma over a finite timestep, the motion of each particle can be determined.

Force potentials (mostly just called potentials) come in several basic forms, but typically are strongly repulsive at short distances with a low energy well at the preferential distance between different particle types. These potentials can be empirical or derived from quantum mechanical calculations, and may or may not take into account things like charge interactions or bonding, depending on your system. The majority of work in simulation goes into generating and validating these potentials for your system.

But how do we get started? There has to be an initial configuration from which positions are predicted and integrated. There's several ways, but it typically boils down to either using a crystalline structure, a random generator, or some combination of the two. These systems typically contain 10^4 to 10^6 atoms, with very few facilities capable of reaching millions of atoms(BlueGeneL, Blue Waters, etc). This is because for a number of atoms N, the number of calculations for each time step scales as roughly 3*N^2.

One million atoms isn't very big. One mole is more than 100,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than that. Even if Moore's Law were to continue indefinitely (which it probably can't, but that's another post), the sheer amount of computing time necessary to simulate a mole of material for more than a picosecond will still be staggering. For me, currently, to simulate 100,000 atoms using 8 clusters for one nanosecond would take roughly 20 hours on our fairly fancy schmancy server, or 160 hours of CPU time. To get around this, we use periodic boundary conditions. As long as our simulation box is large enough that atoms can't try and interact with themselves, we can effectively create an infinite solid. If we want to study a surface, we can chose not to implement periodic boundaries in that direction, or add a vacuum layer. However, in amorphous systems especially, periodic boundaries must be used carefully, lest you over-constrain your system.

So what is MD good for? Quantum mechanical methods are more accurate and finite element analysis can simulate much larger systems. Molecular dynamics (and its cousin, Monte Carlo) is one of the best ways to understand biomolecules and predict things like protein folding. It can be used to understand the mechanisms of radiation damage and shock wave damage. It's also growing as a tool to study interfaces, which tend to become surfaces in experimental methods, which changes certain structural details. It can also be used to study molecules which are simply too large for quantum methods (i.e., more than a few hundred atoms). MD can predict crystal structures for pressures and temperatures, which while not achievable in the lab, happen at the center of the Earth, or in space. The ultra-high tensile strength of carbon nanotubes was predicted by MD before it was verified by experiment.

Materials science is far from the only field that uses molecular dynamics as a tool. We may ask different questions of our results, but people from geophysicists to biologists use MD. And I think that's pretty spiffy.

Awkward Questions

Visiting with relatives almost inevitably results in being asked lots of questions, many of which are potentially awkward. You're sitting and eating your half burned hamburger and trying to defend yourself from mosquitos when someone drops the conversational bombshell. Some of these questions I've been asked so many times, I've got a solid canned response for them. Now that Mr. ME and I are hitched, we've suddenly opened the gateway to a whole world of new questions...

"How does it feel to be married?" ... Let's see, we've lived together since before we were engaged and we've been engaged for over half of our relationship. I'm going with... almost exactly the same?

"When are you going to have kids?" When we decide to. Why is this one of the first questions every single heterosexual married couples gets asked? What if we don't want them?

"Are you merging your bank accounts?" Unless you are my banker, or someone I get financial advice from, I find this rather rude.

Then, of course, there's the standard awkward questions grad students get like "When are you going to graduate?" and "What exactly do you do?", or my personal favorite, "But what's your real job?". Because apparently being a barista at Starbucks would be a more real job than research.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) awkward questions? Have any good responses?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Steampunk Wedding

All picture credits go to my sister's boyfriend. Photoediting... can be blamed on me.

Disclaimer: Steampunk is open to interpretation. This is ours.

Rule one of steampunk is to add gears to things. Because our colors were lavender and silver, we didn't have much brass around. My wonderful aunt made our very lovely and very, very chocolate cake. She does the most beautiful sculpted flowers I've seen, so rather than making her do gears and things, we went with a more Victorian inspired cake and used a large gear for a cakestand. We also got our tin-type taken at the local reenactment museum, which is in the picture next to the cake. I now totally understand why everyone looks angry and stoned in those. You need the brightest light possible, and even then you have to hold as still as possible for at least 30 seconds. It's harder than it sounds.

I made the bridesmaids fascinators (look, more gears!). Peacock was an unofficial color. These were surprisingly straightforward to do.

My bouquet was mostly ribbon and lace flowers, with various green leafy bits from whatever herbs looked healthiest that morning, which ended up being a mix of sage, dill, cinnamon basil and mint. Also pictured are my hat and Mr. ME's cane and our card box, which was probably the only brass thing around.

 We did an afternoon tea reception, and sent the guests home with their own teacup to keep. Our caterers were totally fantastic and made everything less stressful. They solved problems before they even happened!

One of our bubble girls. The venue is a botanic garden, and we would have been required to cleanup any flower petals, so they got bubble guns instead. Mr. ME modded them to look extra spiffy, instead of neon green. The garden provided the parasols, which was unexpected by awesome.

Our mutual friend performed the ceremony (based on Bill Nye's vows) with extra nerd references, including multiple Monty Python and Doctor Who references. And of course, The Princess Bride got a nod. The processional music was all from the new Doctor Who. Mr. ME is indeed wearing a Utilikilt. Also, we snuck in some googles on the officiant's head. There are tons of details, especially in his outfit, but I don't have any of those pictures.

And for a better view of my outfit:

We had a lot of fun planning our wedding, but I'm glad that we're at the married bit. Though Facebook pretty much instantly changed ads from "weddings" to "babies"...