Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Unproductive Productivity

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Away from my desk

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

Email Avalanche

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

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

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

Do you have any student email stories to share?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Transition to Candidacy

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Carnival on Theoretical/Computational Sciences: Molecular Dynamics

Thanks to GMP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 5, 2011

Engage Headless Chicken Mode

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

Thursday, September 1, 2011

TA Training

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

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

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

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

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