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.