Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Maternal Apprecation

During the process of planning my wedding and reading things about other's people's wedding planning, I am regularly thankful for all the maternal figures involved. My mother and step-mother both said "here's your budget: go plan a wedding that makes you happy". My soon-to-be mother-in-law has also been very relaxed about all of our choices.

I also realize I'm incredibly lucky to have my very own #scimom. Well, #STEMmom. Her degree is in mathematics and computer engineering, so she's a little bit of a mix. But as one of the earlier women in computer science, she has very likely faced many challenges from men who doubted her abilities over the years, but she never seemed to let it phase her. She took seven years away from her career until my sister and I were both in school, and my father quit his job to write his own drawing software. When she went back to work, she was quickly promoted for being that rare species of engineers: someone technically capable would could communicate very effectively with administrative people. However, she still does significant technical work regularly.

My sister and I were raised with the mindset of "You can do anything you put your decide to do and put in the effort to accomplish". However, unlike many women of the generation between my mother and I, we never got the message "in spite of everyone else". I've honestly always been a bit oblivious to sexism directed towards me. I assume I get asked secretary-type questions because a) I dress nicer than the average grad student, b) I'm at a desk with an open door, c)I don't look like English is my second or third language, and d) my apparent default facial expression is "How may I help you?" I've never attributed it specifically to my gender.

 Once in awhile, I will look up, and suddenly realize I'm the only woman in the room. Even in materials science, which is much closer to gender parity than most engineering fields, it happens. This doesn't really bother me. I've been told I can seem very intimidating (I don't try...  usually) or authoritative. This results in me getting asked if I'm in charge of events while 10 feet away from the person with the fancy badge.  Generally, though, I'm just confident that I know what I am capable of and I know what I'm hopeless at. I also try and be aware of what other people are good at, so that I can either ask them for help, or direct others to them when asked for help I can't give. I most definitely got this sense of confidence from my mother, though. And I'm very, very thankful for it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spiffy Material of the Indeterminate Time Period: Dry Ice

Unlike my previous post on graphene, a material with theoretical promise and some practical applications, I'd like to talk to you about something more fun: dry ice.

Recently, the experimentalist portion of my group was looking to form supercritical liquid CO2 in an autoclave, and before purchasing expensive pre-pressurizing equipment, wanted to try dry ice. Logistically, the easiest thing was for me to stop by a grocery store and pick some up. Unfortunately, the experiment failed, and I took the extra home, where I discovered Mr. ME had never played with it.Thus, I am reminded of it's basic spiffiness.

Dry ice is spiffy for a number of reason, but mostly, because it sublimates at standard temperature and pressure conditions. Sublimation means it skips directly from the solid phase to the gaseous phase, hence the name "dry" ice. If you live in a dry climate with decent sunlight, you can also observe the sublimation of snow (sunlight is necessary to reflect off the vapor and make it visible). It only happens in dry conditions, though, when the vapor pressure of water in the atmosphere is sufficiently low.

Phase diagrams for materials like dry ice describe the state of the materials as a function of temperature and pressure, as shown below. These diagrams are created by simultaneously solving the Gibb's energy equations for different structures and looking for boundary conditions where two or more phases are stable.

Sadly, personal experimentation has demonstrated that while it will not dilute your martini or whiskey, dry ice won't make it terribly chilled either. I suspect this is due to the Leidenfrost effect. I will just have to cave and order these.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Academia, Looking Out

Unlike a very large number of graduate student, I'm not in a  relationship with a fellow graduate student or with someone in a completely unrelated field. I am, in fact, engaged to a fellow engineer who is working in industry. Unlike many of my straight-into-graduate school peers, I have a pretty solid impression of the daily life of an entry level engineer. It's very interesting to compare the disparities between our routines and responsibilities, and compare what we actually are doing to what we were told as undergraduates.

For clarity, Mr.ME is a component release engineer for a large manufacturing corporation. He's very much on the practical side of things. I, on the other hand, do computation, making me very unpractical.

Mr. ME has at least one meeting daily. I have 1-2 meetings weekly. However, his meetings often involve decision-making. My meetings often involve my advisor going of on odd tangents (recent example: the history of VW Beetle, the properties of polar bear hair, and bicycling trips in central Illinois).

Mr. ME is responsible for quality control decisions that can shut down entire plants. He has a specific list of widgets he is directly responsible for, and a boss who gives him specific things to work on. Most days, my responsibilities are very unclear. My real responsibility is to myself, to make progress that I am happy with, in the absence of clear advisories directives. This is one of this biggest areas in which we find discrepancies from what "everyone" says things will be like. Going into industry, you're told to expect very little real responsibility and lots of drudge work and spread sheets. Going into graduate school, I was told that I would be working long hours on research, and on whatever my advisor told me to do.

Graduate students are assumed to be poorly paid, with horrible benefits and worse hours. While the hours have held true, Mr. ME's first job here paid less than I made, required him to go into work at 5:30AM every other Saturday, and had no benefits. That being said, his new job is much better on both fronts.

Looking out at industry, I sometimes long for the coherent since of direction, and real deadlines and responsibilities.  On bad days, I remember about being paid time-and-a-half for overtime hours... On the other hand, I'm learning vast amounts, and I have much more flexibility in my hours and work. It's often up to me to find things to do, which can be problematic when key equipment is broken (like the login server...). I can be more confident in my decision to do graduate school, because I have a clearer view of the most probable alternative. There's still days when I question it all, but most of the time, I'm glad I'm here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

IMMD: Validation!

Sometimes, you run across a single sentence that seems to justify the path you've taken in your analysis. In my case, it's this sentence from the 6th edition of Undergraduate Experimental Analysis:

"The amount of radiation absorbed is proportional to the square of the rate of change of the dipole during the vibration."

Yep. That sentence totally made my day, and validated ~6 months of debate with my co-authors.

How Advisors Are Not Like Bosses

In a number of very critical ways, being a grad student is not the same as having a job. One of these is the difference between your advisor and your boss.

Academia is a weird place sometimes, and part of that is due to the organizational structure. Superficially, it's not a terribly odd organizational chart, but many times, the actual nature of the relationships in academia is fundamentally different than the analogous relationship in industry.

Difference #1: Deadlines
Graduate school is sometimes a strange limbo of hazy requirements with no firm timeline. Other times, there are firm deadlines, but these are somewhat sporadic. Your advisor is not going to stop by your desk and say "I need the report for the widget on Tuesday for the division meeting." (most of the time).

Difference #2: Performance Reviews
In graduate school, it is unlikely that you will ever sit down for a formal performance review with your advisor until it's approaching time for your defense or unless your professor spent time in industry. More importantly (from the grad student side), you will also never review your advisor's performance. Some larger corporations have a system from underlings to review their managers. Grad students don't have this sort of mechanism, so we resort to whining on the internet.

Difference #3: Advice 
Advisors, at least in theory, are there to help give you advice about how to advance your career and achieve your goals. While there are managers who do this, it's not strictly speaking part of their job. Of course, there are also advisors who aren't very good at this, but it's in the title...

Difference #4: Dependancy
If your manager quits, gets fired, or moves to a new position, this means you get a new manager, but may very well still be working on similar projects, and things are relatively stable (assuming everything goes smoothly). Having an advisor quit, move, or get fired can be much more difficult. You're typically required to have someone advising your research, and if you're very far into your project, switching advisors could very well entail losing years of work. If your advisor is moving, you might be able to follow them, but that's not an easy proposition in most cases.

You also very likely depend directly on your advisor for funding and access to resources. There's not someone above them you can go to (i.e., your boss's boss) when you need order forms signed and they're out of town. The independence of your position is much murkier: you don't work for Corporation or University, you work for Advisor at University. Different schools may also deal with this differently, adding to the confusion.

I'm sure there are plenty more differences, and that there are special cases that disagree with every point I've made above, but in my humble experience and observation, these generally have been true.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Working Hours

As the semester has ended, and I no longer have an 8am class, I find my arrival time in the morning drifting later, even though I'm still waking up at the same time. Part of this is wedding preparations, since I spend some of my time in the morning taking care of details. The other part is related to advice I was given by my corporate internship supervisor: "If you can't control what time you leave in the evening, you can at least control what time you show up in the morning".

My internship was in the non-destructive evaluation group, which meant more often than not, around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, someone would show up and drop a problem on his desk. At this particular office, the typical working hours were 7:30 to 4, so this meant people would stop by on their way out the door, often with some sort of request for "can you have this done by ___?". Since no one ever seemed to have problems first thing in the morning, my supervisor had decided that rather than constantly working significant amounts of overtime, he would simply shift his schedule and show up late.

My current advisor is *not* a morning person. Consequently, I usually don't see him until 2 at earliest, and more often, not until 5... at which point he'll have a list of things he wants done by the "end of the day". So in an effort to have more control over how many hours I'm in the office, I will be experimenting with taking that advice.

Do your boss/advisor's hours affect when you work?

Friday, May 20, 2011


I'm now officially a Twit. Well, at least my blogging pseudonym now is. I refuse to get a personal Tiwtter at this point, because I'm already overwhelmed by the number of tweets Mr. ME reads me from mutual friends, let alone reading more of them...

On the other hand, all the cool kids are doing it?


Thursday, May 19, 2011

I have a new favorite Tumblr site: http://tocrofl.tumblr.com/

It's a collection of some of the most hilarious visual abstracts in peer-reviewed science journals. Perfect for all of your anthropomorphized molecular needs!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cross-Functional by Design

Over at Engineer Blogs, the weekly topic is interacting with engineers across disciplines. As GEARS correctly notes, MSE is already pretty interdisciplinary, interacting with ME, ChemE, and physics. However, it doesn't stop there. If you're working in energy materials, you'll spend plenty of time talking to the EEs, and structural materials talk to the civil engineers.

Because there are so many subspecialties, some of the same challenges one runs into talking to other engineering disciplines can come up within a materials science department. There's occasional jargon barriers, and regular confusion over variable assignments (sigma: conductivity or stress?) However, most of us have some sort of common background, as well as a specific cross-discipline background. This means in a group of mixed engineers, I frequently become "translator". This almost invariable involves a lot of strange hand gestures, but I've been told those are my specialty.

My daily life involves a cross-disciplinary relationship, since I'm marrying Mr.ME in a month. I can understand 80-90% of his daily jargon (the rest being company-specific acronyms), but there is a very large portion of my typical work that requires significant translation, not only from materials to mechanical, but from computational to experimental. Given how difficult in can be to explain concepts to other engineers, is it surprising that non-engineers find us almost impossible to follow?

My sister is an architect, making her the only non-engineer in the immediate family. Her strategy is to tell us to explain it in 30 seconds with bunnies. This works surprisingly well, though the results are sometimes unintentionally hilarious. Because, well, bunnies!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Basic Cooking Skills

Because I don't feel like writing about science, or whining, it's time for something completely different:


Certainly, one can survive without the ability to cook. But good food makes life more enjoyable, and doing it yourself is a whole lot cheaper. Cooking for Engineers is one of my favorite cooking websites, though I am a fan of Alton Brown for beginners, and his omelet tricks. Food can also be a great way to convince potential partners you're worth keeping. Here's my thoughts on the basic techniques to master to impress others.

Roasting is versatile, and can be applied to almost everything, from chicken to squash with fantastic results. Chicken is more challenging, due to the uneven geometry. I've discovered three tricks to getting wonderful roast chicken. First, I split the chicken in half at the breast bone, cooking it interior cavity down. The skin ends up crispier, and the breast meat cooks faster, so the dark meat doesn't end up overdone. Second, I put my salt-and-herb rub *under* the skin. Yes, this involves a lot of touching raw chicken to separate the skin from the meat, but you get crispier skin and more flavorful meat, so just wash your hands thoroughly when you're done. Third, lemons. Cut a lemon in half, squeeze a bit over everything, and stick it under the bird during roasting. It keeps the meat moister, and unless you hate lemon, is quite tasty.

My standard roasting rub/mix ( I put this on almost anything):

1/2 part cayenne/ chili powder
1 part thyme, whatever form I have it around in
1 part ground or cracked black pepper
1 part rosemary (optional)
Lemon zest (if using whole lemons) or lemon juice
2-4 parts kosher salt (more salt for meat, less for veggies)
Olive oil to coat everything lightly
400-425 degree oven, and thermometer for doneness(meat) or unit brown crusty bits form (squash, potatoes, etc)

Simple Salad Dressing
Almost always tastier than the store bought kind, I'll often pull the flavor of everything else into my salad dressing, but the base starts out the same:

Equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Spoonful of jam or honey (both sweetens and thickens)
Pinch of kosher salt
~1 teaspoon of mustard (helps emulsify)
Spice/herb mix

Taste it as you go, and adjust accordingly. Remember, though, it's much easier to add than remove, so add in small increments.

"Wait, what?!" I hear you cry. "That's not a basic technique!" Oh, but it is. It's just one that requires more patience, and more frequent maintenance.

You don't *actually* have to use a specific type of rice, but short grain white rices work best. Orzo or large pearl couscous can also be done this way.

Step 1: Measure amount the amount of rice according to the normal instructions. Put in largeish pan, so that you have a one-grain deep layer of rice, roughly. Add enough olive oil to coat things, and basically toast the rice for 2-3 minutes, stirring regularly.

Step 2: Add liquid, preferably pre warmed, and enough to cover the rice. Stir. If you're doing something fancy like dried mushrooms, now is a good time to add those. Hold off on salt until the end, though.  Simmer on low to medium (some bubbling, but not too enthusiastic).

Step 3: Let the rice cook until at least half of the initial liquid is absorbed, stirring intermittently. Add more liquid. Repeat until rice is tender upon tasting. Add salt to taste, and whatever other flavors you want (store bought Italian herb mixes work nicely).

Step 4 (optional, but recommend): Grate a hard cheese, like parmesan or asiago, on top.

Step 5: Eat!

Acceptable liquids include chicken broth/stock, white wine, water you've used to rehydrate mushrooms, vegetable stock, ham broth. Unacceptable liquids include lighter fluid, molasses, oils of any kind, and the tears of small children (too salty). Seriously, feel free to experiment!

With these three things, you can but together a full meal to impress your girlfriend, boyfriend, potential in-laws, Great-Aunt Kathy, or pretty much anyone who is unaware that you can cook.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Old Buildings Make for Excitement

In today's exciting things going wrong, the steam/radiator pipe down the hall from my office ruptured. Just for extra fun, our facilities engineer is out on vacation, so there were a few extra minutes of headless chicken before anything got done. In good new, it seems that equipment was generally safe, but the carpet may be a total loss in the hall...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Spiffy Material of the Indeterminate Time Period: Graphene & Graphene Oxide

As you may be aware, in 2010, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Geim and Novoselov for their work with graphene. Wired already did a nice little piece on why it won the Nobel Prize, but they focused more on the possible applications of the material, rather than it's already awesome properties and history.

Graphene may be the first Nobel Prize awarded made possible by Scotch tape. Single layers of graphene were first separated by peeling tape off of a block of high-purity graphite. Graphene sheets are effectively two-dimensional, and within the plane of the sheet, are the strongest material ever tested.  They also have remarkably high electron and hole mobility, making them ideal for many electronics applications.

So what is graphene being used in so far? Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney have figured out how to make a paper out of it. It's been used as a transparent anode in organic LEDs and organic photovoltaics. It's little sister, graphene oxide (GO), on the other hand, is a little more practical. It kills E. coli with surprising efficiency. It has also been used as reinforcement for epoxy composites. With as little as 0.125 weight % GO, the fracture toughness of the composite (i.e., how hard it is to start and propagate a crack) increased by 65%. To get equivalent improvements with carbon nanotubes, it took roughly 3%, and graphene oxide is much cheaper to produce.

Basically, it's pretty darn spiffy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Doctor Who!

Tomorrow's new episode is 1) written by Neil Gaiman and 2) has the Ood!

I could only be more excited if Sir Terry Pratchett had been involved in writing the episode!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brief Update: Science and Wedding Planning

I would be remiss if I didn't share this website for anyone thinking about an outdoor wedding in the Midwest or South: Cicada-based Wedding Planning .

Because sometimes in wedding planning, you have to take into account practicalities like "will cicadas attack my wedding guests?"

Why I Majored in MSE

Ultimately, I probably ended up majoring in MSE because of noise induced hearing loss.

To back up a bit, my first instrument was the flute. As a fairly good flautist, I was occasionally asked to play piccolo. The problem with piccolos is that they are very high, very loud, and about four inches from your right ear. So when I started noticing that I only heard fire alarms in my left, I realized I should probably quit the piccolo, and took up french horn instead.

My parents were less than thrilled about buying me another instrument, so we compromised, and I got a budget that was the difference between my sisters violin and my flute. This was not a large number, so to eBay I went. The horn I ended up getting was a cheaper Chinese knock-off, but it had a lovely tone quality, even if the fingerings were all in the wrong key... However, after about a year, it started developing what is called "red rot", or dezincification, where the zinc leeches out of the brass alloy due to galvanic corrosion, leaving behind a porous copper matrix.  The galvanic corrosion was caused by poor manufacturing, where the insides of the tuning slides had been silver plated. When you added a conductive liquid (i.e., spit), a potential gradient forms, and the zinc preferentially oxides, leaving a white powdery substance on the slides (now... try explaining this one to airport security!)

In learning what the physical process of red rot was, I discovered the field of materials science, which encompassed most of the things I had already been interested in, but thought were called chemical engineering. I applied to colleges with the intent of studying metallurgy and acoustics, but soon discovered the incredible breadth of options under the MSE umbrella.

Materials science: because everything is made of something.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Science isn't just results

My project du jour involves simulating a planar interface between two semiconducting materials. While it happens to be a slightly panicky "My advisor submitted abstracts without any data" project, it's proving to be much more interesting than it did at first blush. Partly because it isn't working as expected.

My initial results are telling me these two materials just don't want to bond, while my advisor is adamant that they should. In poking around the literature, I've discovered they are both right, depending on the processing conditions. These two materials only bond with a)an intermediate layer, b) applied voltage, heat and pressure or c) surface melting of at least one component. In our attempts to get a clear interface in very little time, we've been simulating neither of these things. Consequently, I'm now scrambling to set up as many simulations as possible in the hopes that one will work in time for me to do any analysis on the data before the talk next week.

It's a good reminder to check the experimental literature sooner, rather than later, instead of immediately blaming the code. The code may be giving totally realistic results for the imposed conditions, and we need to impose different conditions to get the results we're interested in.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Many thanks to Prof-like Substance for today's holy wah stat-spike. The archives aren't too substantial yet, since I haven't been blogging terribly long, and this has probably been the busiest year of my life (so far). But as the saying goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

Graduate Fellowships for Engineers (part II)

In Part I, I listed some of the more competitive fellowships available for graduate students in engineering fields. Now, I'm going to go over some of the critical, and occasionally obvious, advice for applying to fellowships.

1) Read the Requirements!
Each fellowship wants something different, and they're often kind enough to tell you what that is. In the case of the NSF GFRP, they're even kind enough to tell you every criterion you will be judged on. So do yourself a favor, and read these thoroughly. Consider it practice for grant proposals later in life.

2) Draft and Draft Again
Take the time to write more than one draft of every essay. You're trying to capture your voice in a fairly brief space. Get other people to read your drafts. These two-ish pages are all you have to convince a committee of people to give you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of several years. They'd better be good.

3) Get Advice
Many schools have seminars for fellowship applications, or even staff/faculty members who will help you edit. There are also convenient lists of previous awardees by school: you can ask them for help (though they may not have the time to give it). Read the FAQs. Find advice online.

4) Feel Free to Ignore Advice
If you are given advice you think is really bad, like someone telling you to write your research proposal entirely in iambic pentameter, fell free to ignore it. Your application should represent you, and what you want to do. Don't try and pretend you were Mother Theresa to improve your broader impacts score: be honest about what you have done, and what you think you can achieve. If there's advice about talking about what languages you can code in, and you're an experimental biologist, ignore that.

5) Start Early
This ties back to the second bullet. It takes time to craft a solid essay, to do the literature review for research proposal. Occasionally, you need to set it aside, walk away from it, and come back with a fresh mind set. Sometimes, you can't spot the typo, because you've gotten used to seeing it that way.

6) Get Editing Help
You, most likely, are not an English major. This is perfectly logical, given you're currently applying to graduate fellowships for engineers. I highly recommend finding one to look over your personal statements. It's amazing how much bad grammar can distract from your message. Also, as far as your research proposal is concerned, find a friend in a different subfield to help you eliminate jargon. The committee judging your application will have a background in your general field, but the odds that they are an expert in any particular subfield are rather low. Avoid using TLAs (three letter acronyms) without explanation, or other abbreviations. You may now exactly what a LJ12-6 potential is, but your reviewers may not.

7) Read the Requirements!
Because if you don't, you've already doomed your chances. It's hard to reiterate this one enough.

8) Keep Track of Deadlines
Each fellowship has a different deadline. You really, really don't want to miss them. One way to deal with this is to set yourself deadlines earlier for things like full drafts. Mark them on your calendar. Make note of times to check that your supplementary materials, like transcripts and letters of recommendation, have been sent. If one piece is missing, it's more or less like the entire application was never submitted.

9)Don't Be Afraid to Nag References
And Dr. Isis will back me up on this one. Check online to make sure the letters have arrived. Sometimes, computers freeze at exactly the wrong time. I can say from experience that if you don't double check, things can go wrong.

Friday, May 6, 2011


There are days when I get things done. There are days when I get completely different things done. And then there's the days where I realize everything I've done is wrong and I have to redo it. Arrggg...

Yay research?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Graduate Fellowships for Engineers (part I)

While the deadlines for most fellowship applications may not be until November or December, much like college applications, summer is a great time to start thinking about them.  For most fellowship, you will have to write a personal statement about why you want to be a scientist, as well as a research proposal of some sort (i.e., the kind of science you want to do). These two documents are the most significant part of your application (transcripts and letters of recommendation matter too, but not as much). Logically, you will want to polish these over time, and get input from others. This doesn't happen overnight, so it's better to start sooner than later.

While there are university-specific fellowships at some schools, I'm going to focus on the national level ones. Please note that these are the ones I found relevant when I was applying, and others may exist for those who are not computational materials scientists.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program: This is probably the most well known of the US government fellowships. It is also one of the most challenging statements to write because of the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts requirements. It's less challenging to describe why the research you want to do is worthwhile, and why you're a good person to be doing it: this is something you probably think about anyway. Broader impacts, the impact of your work outside of the scientific community, is more challenging. Being involved with outreach programs is helpful, but you have to be able to effectively convey this briefly. You will quickly discover page limits are one of your biggest enemies.

Many universities offer seminars and help sessions for fellowship applications, especially NSF GRFP. Go to these!

The NSF GRFP is a 3 year fellowship, with $30,000 a year in stipend, plus tuition expenses. You can only apply during the first two years of your PhD program, but it is deferrable should you have money from another fellowship. I do not know if they will cover things like health insurance.

The Department of Defense has two major fellowship programs: NDSEG and SMART, which stand for National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate and Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, respectively. NDESG is a 3 year fellowship that increases slightly each year, from $30,500 to $31,500, which cannot be deferred. The fellowship also covers tuition, and up to $1000 of health insurance costs.

SMART can last for longer, but comes with a service requirement. During the summer term, you work at one of the DoD labs, and following graduation, you are contracted to work for the DoD for one year for each year of funding received. This is an excellent route for those interested in government service, since you are both supported as a student, and guaranteed a job at the end. You are funded at $25,000/year stipend plus tution.

If you have a TA requirement for your degree, this can be tricky to arrange with either DoD fellowship, as both limit your "other" funding to $5,000 a year without specific written requests.

The Department of Energy recently started offering a general graduate student fellowship[ in addition to their computational fellowship programs, the SCGF and CSGF respectively. The SCGF offers a stipend of $35,000 and tuition up to $10,500, as well as up to $5,000 a year to cover things like conference travel, research supplies, relevant books, and even some computer equipment. The fellowship must be renewed annually based on progress, with an annual conference for all DoE fellows.  The CSGF has a stipend rate of $36,000 annually, payment of all tuition, and is annually renewable for up to four years. Teaching assistantships must be approved by the fellowship program.

Outside of the government, the Hertz Graduate Fellowship is funded at $31,000/9 months (unpaid summers), renewable for up to five years. However, it is limited to certain universities, so check if yours is on the list.

In the next part, I'll actually talk about some of the tips and tricks for successful applications. Tip One: Apply!

EDIT: Here's a list of additional fellowships mentioned in the comments:


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An Engineer's Guide to Low Stress Wedding Planning

Mr.ME and I are getting hitched this June is an afternoon steampunk wedding. We also have two friends who are getting married at about the same time. It's been interesting to talk to them, because while they're stressed out, we're very relaxed about the whole thing. We've come up with several tips for planning your wedding without going crazy in the process.

1) Lists
I love lists. They tell me exactly what needs to be done, and how much I have left to do. The key to lists, however, is not to be excessively detailed. When your wedding is still 6 months away, your list does not need to include things like "Tie ribbons around vases for centerpieces". At 6 months out, your list should only have the things you need to get done then. Make a new list as you get closer. Or if you're really ambitious (and geeky) make a Gantt chart for everything, and only focus on the relevant bits at any given time.

2) Prioritize
What about your wedding really matters to you? Do you absolutely have to do the Macarena at your reception? Then make sure that happens. But not every detail needs to be perfect. By deciding which details are important, you can reduce your stress significantly. If you're on a limited budget, prioritizing allows you to figure out where you need to spend money. The key is to talk about your priorities with your significant other, and anyone else with a vested interest in the planning process.

3) "Good Enough"
This may be a big day, but it's still just a day. You cannot make everything perfect in any design. If the chairs have not been aligned with a laser level, but are still in rows, that's good enough. Within spec, to use engineering terminology. Like any good process design, there a certain parts that are more critical than other, as we've hopefully hashed out while prioritizing. Unless your names are William and Kate, the odds are very good that 1) everyone at your wedding is at least vaguely familiar and 2) there will be fewer than 2 billion people watching and 3) roughly zero tabloid magazines covering the event.

4) Design Optimization
Like you cannot design an engine that will never fail, requires no maintenance, and is affordable, you can't plan a wedding that everyone will absolutely love. However, you ultimately wanted everyone to at least somewhat enjoy yourself, so you may have to make some compromises. Even if you don't like dancing, you may know that your grandmother won't consider it a proper wedding unless everyone does the Time Warp. Instead of a DJ, there are some very nice iPod boombox docks, and you can setup playlists with music that you like, and everyone else can stand. If you have a limited budget, try an afternoon appetizer reception instead of a formal sit-down meal.

5) Designate and Delegate Responsibility
The bride (and groom) do not need to plan every single detail. However, someone needs to have final say in all decisions, and it needs to be clear who that is very early on. One of the biggest stressors other people seem to have in wedding planning is conflicting visions from various interested parties. Mr. ME and I were very lucky: my parents had one request, for delicious food. His mother wanted to make sure he invited certain relatives. Other than that, we've had a lot of freedom. On the flip side, we've also delegated a lot to our trained professional (i.e., caterer). She's done dozens of weddings at our venue, and we've told her that we trust her judgement for things like table layouts. For the day of the wedding, we have friends who have agreed to deal with any last minute emergencies, so we don't have to. We may be the managers of this project, but there's ways to distribute the work load.

6) Clear Communication
This ties back to several earlier points. If you have your set of priorities, but can't communicate them effectively, things are more likely to go wrong. If you can clearly tell the florist "I know it may be silly, but it really matters to me that the ribbon is cream, not white", they're more likely to make note of it and do it the way you want. If you have an interfering mother, clearly stating the problem with a proposed solution, like "I know we're from the South and you want pork shoulder barbeque at the wedding, but I'm marrying a Jew, so can we compromise on beef brisket instead?" may minimize the battles.

7) Buffers
Plan for things to go wrong. Have 75 guests and plan on giving out some sort of favor? Have 80. Think you can do your hair and makeup in 30 minutes? Plan for 60. In the end, it's much more pleasant to twiddle your thumbs for half an hour than be panicking. Set your RSVP date at least a week before the caterer/venue need real numbers, so you can hunt down all the non-responders.

Overall, we've been very lucky in planning our wedding, because our families are very relaxed. We also agree on most of the priorities. Most of the disagreements about priorities have been where one of us sees something as an absolute yes/no, and the other just doesn't have a strong opinion. We've also both been involved in planning other, larger, events previously. We still have lots of little things to do, but we're totally on track, with room to spare.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Practical Mini Courses

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. There is also a common complaint among engineering graduate students that there are not enough *teaching* opportunities. A typical TA position in engineering entails a lot of grading, if you're very lucky, a recitation, and generally little student interaction. Unless you end up substituting for your advisor, you are very unlikely to ever lecture. Lab TAs get significantly more student interaction, but again, no lecture experience.

I believe these problems have a common solution: have graduate students prepare and teach mini-courses on the practical topics undergraduates are asking for. Quite frankly, when it comes to most software programs, it's the graduate students who are using them every day and know them inside and out. I acknowledge there are certainly a number of administrative issues in making this work, but both sides could benefit.