Thursday, June 30, 2011

Accidental Radio Silence

So the downside of name changing is the amount of paperwork that must be filed from 9-5 in person. This has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench in my week, hence the lack of posting. This will not be changing in the immediate future, as I'm deliberately avoiding the internet while we visit Mr. ME's parents this weekend. Maybe then I'll finally edit my preliminary proposal...

July isn't even here yet, and it's already chaotic, with three large project deadlines converging in the first week of August. I'm starting to think my advisor thinks of me as two people, since I'm working on two large unrelated projects right now. Of course, he's run off to Europe, so feedback times are even slower than normal. This weekend is a preemptive charge-up before reality strikes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why I'm Changing My Name

Basically, it comes down to searchability and uniqueness, not a sense of traditionalism. My maiden name, at a school with fewer than 2500 women, meant I had a name double. I have no particular attachment to my maiden name, and having a common name can quite frankly be a pain. Mr.ME, on the other hand, has an Ellis Island hat name (i.e., completely made up), so it's very uncommon. Also, I haven't published anything yet, so that's a non-issue.

Put simply, searching my first initial and maiden name on Google scholar yields over 50,000 hits. My married name yields 12, of which 10 aren't actually the proper combination.  The other 2 are from the 1950s.

I also want kids eventually, and it makes many things a lot easier if you have the same last name as your children. I noticed this a lot after my mom remarried and changed her name, even though if you stand us next to each other, the only difference is the hair. You would think as a child of divorce, I might be more apprehensive, but I'm really not. I try not to expect failure: it's a good way to make self-fulfilling prophecies.

Of course, our friends are still voting for us both changing to the trainwreck, since the last four letters of his and the first four of mine are the same. (Our invitations were even Venn diagrams with wedding ring circles... dorks much?). But that's twice as much paperwork. Equality is fine and good, but I'm not making him take time off work to sit in the Social Security Office and DMV.

Upcoming Projects

Yesterday suddenly turned into speed-writing day, as my advisor had conference proceedings due Friday, but is heading to Europe today, and was surprised when the organizers wouldn't grant him an extension. Since the talk involves my data, and the other student whose data it uses is currently overseas, I ended up staying in the office rather late last night.

By the end of this year, I have the following big tasks to get done (approximately in order):

Drafts of 2-3 manuscripts to co-authors (still debating on splitting one paper or not)
Poster presentation at conference in early August
Preliminary proposal for candidacy
Lab teaching assistantship
Regular presentation at Giant Conference A (on project A)
Regular presentation at Giant Conference B (on completely unrelated project B)

... There's something about the third year of things...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mrs. MSE?

I'll be keeping my psuedonym, but not I get to start the process of changing my name. After many conversations, I've decided to take his name. Not out of a sense of wifely obligation, but for search engine optimization. As my manuscripts haven't been published yet, my full publication record can be with the new last name, which is vastly more searchable than my maiden name.

The wedding went pretty smoothly, other than one of the bubble girls arriving late (the venue would have required us to clean up flower petals...).  I will post appropriate pictures once I get them off of friends and family. The one thing I didn't expect was the sheer volume of leftovers we ended up with. No cooking for the next week or so?

Well... back to work. We'll get around to a honeymoon next year...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wedding Break

Good morning! Today's my last day before wedding chaos arrives (in the form of relatives), so there will be lots of cleaning and vacuuming, and then some more vacuuming so that no one chokes to death on cat hair. Consequently, I will not be blogging for roughly the next week. I promise to post appropriately altered pictures after the wedding.

Gerty-Z, over at Balanced Instability had an interesting post yesterday about the lack of confidence demonstrated by most young female speakers. As I mentioned in the comments, Alan Alda was involved in a very interesting project a few years ago about using improv training as a tool to improve their communication skills. The video can be seen here.

Students of all stripes generally need more experience presenting. While rehearsing a specific talk can help, many, many science students are simply uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. There's also a  line I love at about 8:25: "It's much easier when you just make it up than when you write it out the night before." So many students over rehearse a particular talk, and if they get interrupted or distracted mid-sentence, completely lose their talk.

However, there simply aren't that many opportunities to practice, unless you are somehow lecturing, or have external routes (like theatre or other performing arts). It's hard to sound confident about your science when you wouldn't be comfortable presenting The Cat in the Hat in front of a group. Perhaps instead of a journal club, a Science Open Mic? I'd love suggestions, as this is something I'm really interested in starting here at GiantU.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spiffy Material of the Indeterminate Time Period: Aluminum

Sadly, BNL never made a music video for this song, so here's their lead singer in a bathroom:

Aluminum. It's everywhere, from around your burrito to the bodies of airplanes, but at one time, it was the most precious metal on earth. It's one of the lightest metallic elements, and one of the most abundant elements in the earth crust. So how was it so precious that Napoleon III, who used silver as his regular utensils,  gold for high ranking guests, saved his aluminum flatware for only the most honored guests? Processing.

While abundant, aluminum is almost never found in its elemental form. Aluminum almost instantly forms a thin protective oxide layer, which is what gives it such fantastic corrosion resistance. Unlike silver flatware, you don't have to regularly polish your aluminum, because the oxide layer is transparent, unlike black AgO. However, this makes extracting aluminum from its mineral forms difficult. In the early years of  aluminum processing, the Wöhler process, in which anhydrous aluminum chloride is reacted with potassium, was used. However, aluminum chloride is not the most abundant form of aluminum. 

Bauxite, made of several different forms of aluminum oxide, is the most common source of aluminum in the modern era. The Hall–Héroult process is used to extract pure aluminum, first dissolving the bauxite in molten sodium hexafluoroaluminate (also known as cryolite), and then electrolytically separating the pure aluminum from the molten salt bath. While natural cryolite was once used, reserves are largely depleted, and it is now instead synthesized from fluorite.  Fortunately, aluminum is entirely recyclable.

Take a minute to look around, and figure out everything around you that's made of aluminum, and think about how less than 200 years ago, it would have been worth more than it's weight in gold. Spiffy, huh?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ask a Youth Librarian, and Ye Shall Receive

Inspired by A Wrinkle in Time, I started thinking about what other young adult novels have scientists in them (not necessarily accurate/realistic ones). Unfortunately, being a fantasy buff, the list on my shelves was pretty short. Though, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Being unable to come up with a good list, I took advantage of my social network, and so I asked a youth librarian. Here are some of her suggestions:

Fever Crumb, by Philip Reeve
Alchemy and Meggy Swan, by Karen Cushman (Haven't read this one, but two of her other books, Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice were favorites)
Science Fair, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
The Kiki Strike series, by Kirsten Miller (mad scientists!)
The Leviathan Series, by Scott Westerfield (I've read these, and loved them! They're also steampunk books, so there's lots of swashbuckling airship action too. Darwin is also a total celebrity. Third one is due out in November. It also talks a bit about mechanics, which is fun.)
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart
Higher Institute for Villainous Education, by Mark Walden
The Relic Master Series, by Catherine Fisher
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T.Anderson
Double Helix, by Nancy Werlin
Living on Impulse, by Cara Haycak
Tentacles, by Roland Smith
The Gadget, by Paul Zindel

For teenagers, I recommend Fluke, by Christopher Moore, which is goofy and bit raunchy for younger kids, but (very loosely) based on real whale researchers. The second half gets very strange, but teenage boys will like it. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but if you're looking for books with scientists in them, it's a place to start!

Summer time is apparently reading time: for adult recommendation, check out the list growing at Uncertain Principles, and of course, his book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

Friday, June 10, 2011


... are often unproductive. Today does not appear to be an exception. I should have a proper post Monday, but next week, being the week before my wedding, is likely to involve very little blogging.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Favorite Fictional #scimom

So now that I've talked about my mother and grandmother, I decided to talk about my bookshelf. Not every girl can be lucky enough to have their very own #scimom, but most kids have access to a library (though fewer every day, but that's a rant for another time).

Madeline L'Engle's most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, as well as later books in the series, talk about the protagonist's mother, Katherine Murray, who has degrees in microbiology and bacteriology, and actively pursues research while raising her four children.  Meg herself never pursues her PhD, but in later books, serves as a research assistant to her husband Calvin, a marine biologist. The books are also very honest about some of the struggles the exceptionally smart have functioning in society, particularly as adolescents.

ScienceWomen have a lovely list of books focusing on women scientists, but are there any other YA books you all would recommend with female scientist role models, even as minor characters?

For a more general list of literature about scienctists, go here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My SciGrandmother

I've talked previously about my #STEMmom, but I also have a pretty awesome STEM grandmother. My paternal grandmother was a research assistant for my grandfather, and later, my step grandfather, both of whom were experimental psychologists. After completing her Master's degree, she was dissuaded from finishing a PhD. However, she stayed in science doing significant research for many years, as evidenced by her publication record on audio and visual perception. She was fantastically supportive when my aunt went for her doctorate in neuroscience, and is pleased as peaches that I'm going for my doctorate. I'm very proud to have her as a grandmother.

However, as an engineer, I hear an awful lot of my peers malign psychology and the other social sciences as not "real science". The infamous Coburn report spends a significant fraction of its length attacking social sciences in particular, and proposes eliminating the entire Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate. Yes, other agencies fund similar research, but other agencies also fund work in the physical sciences (i.e., NIH, DoD, DoE, etc.). The physical sciences strive to understand the universe: social sciences strive to understand humanity. Just because you don't need to know calculus doesn't mean it's not "real science". The scientific method still applies. In good experiments, there are still control groups and sample size considerations. Results from social science research have changed how we approach special education, our understanding of how people interact, how we perceive people with mental illnesses. There's more to psychology than Freud...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Finding Where You Fit

As a compulsive long-term planner, I've been considering lately where I'd like to ultimately end up (though graduation is still a way off...). One thing I've determined is that I don't want to end up at another R1 university a la GiantU. The resources are fantastic, but there's no sense of "department". We're a bunch of separate groups, and after your course work is done, you retreat to your research cave, until you emerge with a thesis. While a decent fraction of the grad students are in two main offices, some groups are hidden in their own little corners, such as mine. It can be stretch to interact with other students simply because I never run into them (especially since I'm something of a morning person).

SnowTech was a rather smaller school, and I honestly wouldn't mind ending up there permanently, given a good snow blower. I liked knowing all of my professors, even the ones I never took a class with. I don't want to be a research rock star. I'd rather be a good teacher and a decent researcher than develop the next carbon nanotube. My undergraduate professors also generally seemed a bit calmer and frankly, happier, than most of the MSE faculty at GiantU. Maybe it's that their teaching time was more valued. Maybe being in the middle of nowhere attracts a mellower kind of person in the first place.

At this point, there are three paths I can see myself taking: the national lab system, small engineering school professor, or industry. This of course assumes openings at any of these, but such is the way of job searching. I'm lucky that my two-body problem involves a non-academic, which in some ways makes him easier to move around. I've been lucky enough to have a summer internships both in the national lab system and industry, so I'm not simply hoping I'd like them better. There's something oddly reassuring about knowing you have to leave work by 6 pm, or the gaurd

For most of my life, I've known at least roughly where I was going to be in 4 years. I started looking at graduate schools in high school. For the first time, I'm honestly unsure. It's a strange sensation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Shifting into Summer Gear

While classes have been out for well over a month, I'm just now finally shifting into summer gear. Part of this was the near continuous cold rain last month, but also pulling together data for my advisor's speculative abstract. Summer is a wonderful time to delve more deeply into a subject, without the interruptions of class, or quite as many meetings. It can be harder to stay motivated, with the lovely weather/ really poorly regulated office temperatures. Therefore, I'm going to set my self some goals.

My goals for June and July:

Finishing editing manuscripts
Get my advisor to *read* my first manuscript, and figure out where we're sending it
Finish writing preliminary proposal
Put together for August meeting
Run simulations for completely unrelated August data review
Learn Python

Preliminary defense
Present poster
Get second manuscript read (which is a reach, but might as well try).

We'll see how this goes...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Well-Rounded Engineers (or why Humanities Matter)

While SnowTech was an engineering school to the core, my high school education was very much like attending a liberal arts college. I was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, which means that, among other things, I can spell baccalaureate correctly on the first try.  It also means that I got a much broader education than the typical American high school student.

As a graduate student, it is pretty much inevitable that you will work with people from other countries, and absolutely inevitable that you will work with people from very different cultural backgrounds than yours. Sure, you'll have common scientific backgrounds, but there's more to an effective working relationship. This is where I think it's important to have that broader background to draw on.

My high school experience involved a very extensive study of modern (i.e., 1760-ish onward) European History, as well as a brief study of Asian and Latin American History. Learning history gives me perspective on more cultural background. More importantly, though, history class is where I really learned how to write a coherent argument. We wrote essay. Lots of essay. Some of them at home, some of them where we were given specific resources to analyze, and others where we had to recall the supporting information without help. We were taught how to structure an argument, and how to support a thesis statement effectively. Over and over, I read about how scientists can't write or communicate. Perhaps it's because they were never really taught how?

I also had to learn a second language (I chose Spanish). More than anything, I think this is something everyone should have to try, just so they can appreciate how difficult it really is. Yes, your Chinese TA may have a thick accent and trouble with articles like "the", but your Chinese would probably be even more unintelligible. Trying to speak a second language helps you learn how to effectively manipulate a restricted vocabulary. Depending on who I'm talking to, I tend to adjust my speech patterns (particularly my enunciation), because I'm aware that my standard mode of speech can be excessively florid, slightly mumbled, and non-linear. Learning Spanish made me a more effective communicator, even though I'm still speaking in English.

Speaking of English, my freshman year focused on learning how to extract meaning from text efficiently. We were assigned 26 books over the course of the year, and while my freakish speed-reading self completely read all but one of them (I just can't get into Dickens), we were taught strategies on how to look for meaning without poring over every single word. I also learned how to edit myself brutally. We were given red pens and our own papers, and she expected them to be bleeding when we turned them back in.

I've already talked about how music lead me to materials science, and it should be obvious that chemistry and physics and math were very important to that as well. However, I think the most important skills I learned in high school weren't the facts or formulas I memorized, but the communication skills I learned outside of STEM classes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Advisor to English Dictionary

Part of any working relationship is learning what certain phrases actually mean beyond the direct statement. Below are some of the phrase my advisor uses and their translations.

"We need to meet sooner rather than later": I'm about to double your work load for the next 2 to 6 weeks. You may or may not actually get credit for this.

"I need to think about it": You're going to have to keep nagging me about "it" because it's low on my priority list.

"Soon": yesterday

"Coming up": usually two weeks or less, in reference to "I have a meeting coming up and I need you to do (these things that take longer than two weeks).

"I'm not sure": for a single item, typically means no. If trying to get a sense of priority between two items, it means do both.

"Here is the final version": if you wait another hour, I'll have completely changed my mind about something.

"I'll do it this weekend": I may do it in the next month with sufficient nagging.

DISCLAIMER: every advisor is different. Some translations may not hold for all advisors.

What phrases does your advisor use that can't be taken at face value?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Brass & Goggles: A Metallurgical Perspective

As mentioned in my wedding post, I mentioned Mr.ME and I are having a steampunk wedding. Consequently, we've spent a lot of time explaining what exactly that means. While there are many philosophical debates within the community, and some objections, two of the things almost everyone associates with steampunk are brass and goggles. However, most people don't really stop to think why.

It's right there in the name: steam. Consider the most common modern steam-powered device, quality espresso makers. They're typically made of one of three things: copper, brass and stainless steel. Steampunk is very focused on the Victorian era, which predates the development of stainless steel. Stainless steel is also rather more difficult to machine and form. Copper is also very common in steam applications due to its very high thermal conductivity, but pure copper is very soft.

This brings me to the second part: goggles. In a world where everything is powered by steam, you're then constantly surrounded by pressure vessels. Steam engines fundamentally transform thermal energy to mechanical energy via pressurized steam. In a world of pressure vessel, ruptures happen, and if they do, I'd like to be wearing goggles when it does. Furthermore, many of the preferred goggles are actually based on brazing or welding goggles, two of the more common processes for joining brass or copper.

Which brings me back to brass. In many ways, it's the optimal material for a world of steam and filigree. Being an alloy of copper and zinc, it retains many of copper's thermal properties. Good conductivity is important when using inefficient heat sources, such as wood and coal. Brass also has much better mechanical properties than pure copper, allowing vessels to operate at higher pressures, and gears to resist wear. It's corrosion resistant compared to the steels available at the time, and the melting point allows for castability. Adding small amounts of lead (as the Victorians likely would) can dramatically improve machinability. All in all, this makes for good steam powered machines.

Brass and goggles: not just because they look good.