Friday, April 29, 2011

Better living through chemistry

Consider the following situation: you're preparing dinner, and handling hot peppers. You start doing something else, and, forgetting about the peppers, rub your eye(s).... What do you do?

Capsaicin, the source of the horrible, horrible burning pain, is a non-polar molecule. This means that it's not soluble in water, unless you add something like soap, which has both a polar group and non-polar groups, allowing it to interact with everybody. Because it's not soluble in water, flushing your eyes with water will mostly spread the capsaicin around, and as anyone who has accidentally gotten shampoo in their eyes can tell you, soap isn't that much less painful (though it does allow you to eventually flush it out with water). This is why milk is more effective for calming a burning mouth than waterSo what other options are there?

If you, or someone you live with happens to wear eye makeup with any sort of regularity, there is very likely makeup remover somewhere in your abode. It's explicitly formulated for removing oily things like mascara from the sensitive eye area without causing irritation. This is also why eye makeup remover is a remarkably effective capsaicin remover.

So next time this happens to you, reach for the makeup remover.* If you regularly handle peppers, even if you don't wear makeup, it's good stuff to have around.

*Mr. ME will totally vouch for this

Thursday, April 28, 2011

MSE 101: Introductory References

FSP has an interesting post today about introductory textbooks.  While several such books exist for MSE, by far the most popular is Materials Science and Engineering: An Introduction by Callister, or his other book, Fundamentals of Materials Science and Engineering. To me, these are a solid example of how to do an introductory textbook well. The focus is on presenting the breadth of MSE, with enough detail that almost all MSE majors I know kept their copy as a reference.

It deals with jargon by including a glossary at the end of each chapter, as well as actively defining terms. It is largely about the concepts, with just enough examples to make it seem relevant. While the actual text isn't particularly casual, the typesetting is a bit more free and open, and the illustrations look less like paper figures and more like really well done doodles.

In graduate school, many students in MSE Ph.D programs have a BS in a different discipline, typically physics. I consistently recommend and lend this book to students switching to MSE. However, it is ultimately a general, conceptual book, and falls short in presenting certain critical formulas (stress-based failure criterion, for example). But I have other books for getting into the details of particular areas. In fact, I have three different textbooks entitled "Mechanical Behavior of Materials".

Is there a textbook you would recommend for anyone starting in your field?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Paraphrasing Edison

My advisor asked me this morning to give him slides of new results for a presentation on the project I was told to put on the back burner for a while... by tomorrow morning.

I'm very tempted to send him a slide paraphrasing Edison: "Results? I have results! I know thousands of things that don't work."

And then include 10 slides of everything I've done that hasn't worked. But somehow, I don't think that's what he's looking for.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Doctor Who and MSE

The newest series of Doctor Who premiered on Saturday, with liberal application of the Doctor's sonic screwdriver. One of the things I find fascinating is how different fans react to how the screwdriver has been used by the different incarnations of the Doctor. Matt Smith (the current Doctor) uses it largely as a non-destructive evaluation tool, or as, well, a screwdriver.  The Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, was a bit more reliant on his screwdriver.

In "The Empty Child" Chris Eccleston (the Ninth Doctor) uses it to repair a chain link fence, which one anonymous internet commentator was offended by.  But here's the thing: ultrasonic welding actually exists. It can be used on a variety of plastics, as well as metals, and unlike traditional welding, is very effective in joining dissimilar metals. It is often used for applications like microelectronics, where other forms of welding are simply too imprecise.

Fundamentally, ultrasonic welding works by creating a high-pressure wave creating local motion of the material. The mixing at the interface joins the two pieces. While current ultrasonic welding is limited to small thickness in metal, one can assume that given the massive power of the TARDIS, the Doctor can probably manage to weld some chain link fence back together. It's also one of the better processes to effectively join composite materials, without introducing defects, as typically happens with adhesives and definitely happens with mechanical fasteners.

So even though the concept of a time-traveling police box may be far-fetched, there is some science in science fiction.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Email Lists

It is astonishing how quickly my email drops off when the undergraduate are on break (currently, study break before finals). Engineering at GiantU has a general email list, plus I'm on my departmental list, the graduate students in my department list, and general university-wide sorts of emails. All of this results in a fairly large volume of email during the semester, much of which is completely irrelevant to me. And because there are often typos, it can be challenging to effectively filter out the crap.

To top it off, GiantU is having a major spam problem of late. In an average day, I probably get 30-50 emails. Of these, I care about 3-5... which means ~90% of the email I receive is irrelevant. However, during breaks, it's much closer to half.

What changes your email volume?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Busy yet Bored

It is somewhat amazing how you can be simultaneously overwhelmed with work, and yet bored for the majority of the day. Today, I'm watching code run, and due to licensing issues, I can only run one copy at a time. Despite having several projects, they've also all synched up into the same general phase, where every 45 minutes or so, I have to do something non-automateable, and then wait for another 45 minutes until it happens again.

Good day to catch up on reading papers, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Problem of Sub-Specialties

In commenting over at FCIWYPSC, I got to thinking about the issue of sub-disciplines. Materials science is already a small discipline, in terms of enrollment numbers. However, in terms of sub-disciplines, it's an enormous field. Here are some of the general areas researchers in materials science may work on:

Energy materials (oragnic or inorganic)
Computation (quantum through mesoscale)
Metallurgy (casting, welding, failure, alloying, forging...)
Amorphous Inorganic Solids (Glass, metallic glasses, sol-gels)
Theory (thermodynamics and statistical mechanics)

Within each of these branches are many sub-specialties. The diversity in research is in some ways fantastic, but in other ways, it can become problematic.  Because students often learn both processing and characterization techniques, if advisor conflicts arise, changing groups means starting over. Skills are largely transferable, but results general are not. Leaving a group typically means leaving your results behind, because Sub-Discipline B doesn't care about Sub-Discipline A, and the relationship with Advisor A is probably such that you won't be publishing them (since you left A for a reason...).

On the other hand, if you decide you find fatigue tiring (no apologies for the pun), that diversity can be a good thing, allowing you to take your technical skills to something you find more interesting. As an undergraduate, I was able to be involved in a wider variety of research without leaving the comfort zone of my department right away.

How specialized is too specialized?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday Museings

The end of the semester is imminent, and so my plate is even more overloaded than usual, with two very large projects due. It will be nice to get back to research once the semester is over.

I had an interesting conversation with my advisor last week, talking about how he can change his editing habits to get us feedback in a more reasonable time frame. Hopefully he actually follows through... However, with two defenses in the next month, I know it will probably be another month before I can realistically hope he'll take a look at my manuscript.

In other news, the weather is going slightly mad, and people have apparently already forgotten how to drive in non-ideal conditions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Safety and Sleep

A very tragic incident happened last Tuesday night in the Yale machine shop:

At GiantU, my department had our own scare last Friday evening when a very tired graduate student dropped a 1 gallon glass container of benzene, forcing an evacuation of the building and Haz-mat cleaning, keeping students out of the lab for several days until it was safe.

Both of these incidents likely have a common factor: exhaustion.

Graduate students are constantly pushed by their advisors to work more hours, get more data, sleep less. As a computationalist, I may not be likely to spill chemicals, but I do eventually need to drive myself home. And as Mythbusters have shown, driving tired can be just as dangerous as driving drunk. Tired data collection can often be bad data collection, and you may end up doing it all again anyway. If you absolutely must be working, for heavens sake, don't work exhausted and ALONE. Professors, you need sleep too.

Sometimes, everyone needs a reminder that some things are more important than getting one more data point. Sleep is a basic safety precaution.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Allies, Acceptance and Automation

I've found myself an ally in trying to get my advisor to give me feedback. One of my professors for coursework is an older guy, about to retire, and noticed I was rather upset the other day. We sat down and talked about my situation, and he gave me good advice about how to approach my advisor about the problem, how to escalate if nothing gets better, and has offered to confront my advisor independently but indirectly.

I'm also accepting that I will only get regular feedback around impending external deadlines, and so submitting conference abstracts may be the best way to get feedback on my data, even if it may not get the publication read. There's always the other people at conferences who ask handy questions like "when is the paper coming out"?

Automating code is the best thing ever: I've streamlined one of my analysis codes significantly to skip all of the copy-paste steps it included during development. Running analysis in batches is fantastic!

Sunnier weather has definitely improved my mood. That, and Friday night karaoke at the local independent bookstore.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Always look on the bright side...

I swear I'll talk about MSE again eventually.

Upside to working on lots of projects at once is that when I get stuck on one, I still have lots of things I can do to be productive.

Downside to the lack of overlap within my group is that on certain projects, when I get stuck, none of the other students can help (having never used the code in question) and my advisor seems to have activated ninja mode today.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Coping Mechanisms

I'm currently trying to evaluate my major coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and nonsense, because they clearly aren't working. My current methods largely fall into two categories:

1) Venting: either to Mr. ME, or by blogging, or to my parents or lab mates. Though venting to my father seems to have led to meddling from my aunt, a professor in a different department at GiantU. Ultimately, clearly articulating the problem seems to make me more upset, rather than less. This indicates it's not a very good coping mechanism.

2) Ignoring it: one of the nice things about being busy is not having as much down time to think about problems I can't immediately fix. Instead, I will just keep chugging on and distract myself by working, or laughing at kitten antics. Playing with the kitten is probably my most effective stress-release at this point.

3) Resigned acceptance: at this point, I'm near the bottom of my advisor's priority list except when something I'm doing directly influences something higher up the list. Since my project doesn't involve collaborators and only has an annual review (which is for my new project, not the papers he's sitting on), he cares about it roughly once a year. I can keep nagging him about reading the paper every single time I see him (which hasn't done any good yet). I can talk to my grad chair and department chair (again), but I'm not terribly optimistic.

4)...? Any other suggestions for dealing with negligent advisors?

Friday, April 1, 2011


The 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.

Of course, I am the only other student in the group with enough knowledge in this technique to be able to cobble together results for said speculative abstract in time. This brings my research related projects up to three (four if we include trying to prepare for my quals, which is really a preliminary proposal) while take three classes, two of which have very large projects due at the end of the semester.

Realistically speaking, I can put one of my three research projects on the back burner for the next month, but that leaves me trying to balance four large (very non-overlapping) projects over the next month or so.  Yaaaaay....

How many projects did/do you typically work on as a graduate student?