Monday, August 31, 2009


By precious serendipity, two of my labmates showed up like so:

And had to spend the rest of the day fending off inquiries into whether they had planned such a thing.

It appears they are both on the same level of grad student dressing:

Thank goodness there were no socks with the sandals!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conference Tidbits

A few memories of last week's conference.

The old boys get snarky

At the end of one particular presentation, the audience was clearly not impressed. After three or four critical questions, one rather elderly member stood up and pointed out: "You should check the proceedings of previous conferences... *pause* ...from fifty years ago. You might find your solution detailed therein." It was funny enough to hear someone told that their work was already done half a century ago, but the "therein" thrown in at the end cracked me up for some reason...

Excuse me, we're meeting here

There's a lunch break every day for a hour and a half. We helpers use that time to set up presentations on the laptops for every afternoon session. I came into one room to find that a group of men had hijacked the laptop and were getting ready to start a meeting. I politely said that there was an afternoon session in an hour, and I needed to prepare for it. I was curtly informed that "we're having a meeting here, members only." I asked if they would be done quickly, and they assured me they would not run over. Take a quick guess how that played out. I had to go get the professor who organized the conference, who efficiently evicted the all-important meeting. Humph. Don't stand in the way of a helper with a USB key, buckos...

Tomato, tomato

Having an international conference with representatives from all manner of countries provides a plethora of opportunities for language issues. The chairman of one of my sessions introduced "Dr. X, from 'Mitt' [like an oven mit]. As you know, Mitt has produced excellent research in area Y." I was trying to find out where in the world Mitt might be. I finally realized the good Dr. was from M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ah.

Impromptu engineering on the tour bus

Every weekday there were tours provided, with charter buses for transportation. On Monday near the end of the day, it began to thunderstorm. The bus parked as close as it could to the walkway, but because of the intense summer storm there was a fast moving torrent of water covering the road between the bus and the walkway. One of the student volunteers jumped on the tour bus microphone and announced "Just a little flash flooding here, folks, but hold on a moment and we will take care of things." Then while two student volunteers ran to get ponchos for the conference guests (getting themselves soaked in the process), two other volunteers quickly built a bridge to dry land by repurposing a few loading dock ramps. Talk about dedication!

What is this newfangled idea

I attended the keynote speech in my area of expertise, because I was curious and wanted to learn whatever I could. But it turns out that I already knew everything that was in the presentation. I am not sure if a) this means I truly am an expert in my field, or b) the seventy-year-old presenter was not quite on the cutting edge anymore. I tend to think it's a little of both. I've learned a lot, and the presenter was just trying to cover the broad strokes. But I was a bit amused when the presenter referenced a technique that has been around about fifteen years now, and proudly noted that he had learned about that technique "just last week."


As luck would have it, I was on tour bus duty on Thursday. The tour was scheduled to go the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, and then to Fanueil Hall Marketplace. This also happened to coordinate with precisely the day that the late Kennedy's body was to be displayed at said museum, and that the 70-limo calvacade was to pass by the marketplace. And you say my job is to keep track of 85 people? Ha!

In the end, it all turned out fine. Our tour group was the last one through the museum (at 10am) before they closed everything down in preparation for the arrival of Kennedy at 4pm. We did lose people in the marketplace, but we had told people they could walk home if the chose (and gave out maps). So we just assumed anybody not on the bus was walking, and called it a day!

The city was indeed a madhouse that day, with TV crews and security everywhere. But one of the ladies actually got interviewed by a TV news station - they wanted to hear an international visitor's views on the whole thing. How cool!

Visiting "Dignitary," eh?

On Thursday the hotel was informed that everyone on a certain floor of the hotel was going to have to move, for a "visiting dignitary" for the Kennedy funeral. This displaced a number of conference guests, so we had to deal with that. We also noticed that sharp, well-dressed men were stationed at every crucial spot in the hotel. Secret Service, we guessed. In fact, there was even a Secret Service guy posing as the loading dock head attendant. He was just a bit more whip-smart than a minimum wage job worker should be, you know? And there was that pin...

We all tried to guess who the dignitary was, and the betting favorite was Vice President Biden. But actually on Friday, we saw President Obama exiting the hotel. He stayed at our hotel during his visit!


There are many more stories from the week, but I think that gives a snapshot. All around, an excellent experience! The last night, all the volunteers were invited to the farewell dinner on the 50th floor of a building in very swank conditions. As I stood in my black dress and turquoise heels, sipping my champagne while looking out over the downtown skyline, Fenway park and the Charles river, it occured to me that life is good.

Cheers, my friends, to the life of a graduate student.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Old Boys Conference

There is a conference in my field which is unique among the conferences I know about. It is only open to members, and membership is very exclusive - each country is only allowed 20 members. The US, Japan, France, and maybe Germany are already maxxed out, so in those places until somebody dies you can only be an Associate Member (which have limited access to meetings and proceedings). And even in places that are not maxxed out, the barrier to becoming a member is quite high - there is an extensive list of requirements to be met.

There are also very specific rules on where the conference can and cannot be hosted (two out of every three years must be in Europe, the President of the organization can only come from a country that has already hosted the conference, and on and on the rules go...). This year, the conference is right here in town, hosted by a professor here at World's Best School. This is a big deal, as the last time this conference was in the US was in the 1980s at some point.

The professor organizing the conference is the head of the overarching lab I work in (i.e. my advisor's boss; the director of the lab that my professor is a collaborator in). This means that most of the students I work with - my colleagues in the overarching lab - have been volunteered into working at this conference. Or, as we like to call it, "volun-told" to help out all this week. I get an official uniform and nametag and everything!

This is actually a pretty sweet gig. The conference is Sun-Sat, so it's a full week of work for me. But my advisor has told me that he doesn't expect any work from me on research, so this week is a wash in that regard. Three days I am working in the technical sessions, sitting in the back of the room to make sure that nobody's laptop fries or the microphone doesn't run out of batteries. I also collect the PowerPoints after each session, which will be compiled into a master document at the end (available only to members, of course...). The benefit of this job is that I get to hear all the presentations (I wrangled the schedule to get the sessions that are most relevant to me and my own work).

The other three days this week I am assigned to "Accompanying Persons" duty. This I think is a cool feature of this conference - many professors bring their spouses (the majority are wives, although there are one or two women professors who come with their husbands) and occasionally their children. And every weekday there is a tour planned for these people; bus transportation to sightseeing type of things around the area. This is a fantastic gig, because all I have to do is crowd control (which is not hard) and I get to see all sorts of cool stuff I've been wanting to see anyway.

Yesterday I was on bus duty, and we took about 70 people to see Plymouth plantation and Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower II (a replica of the original Mayflower). Really neat stuff, and a fascinating tour of replica colonial and Native Amercian villages. Thursday I am also on bus duty, and I think we are headed to the JFK Presidential Library and Musuem. I can't remember what Friday is - but I can hardly go wrong, I'm sure it will be enjoyable. As long as the same number of noses get off my bus as get on it, I have done my job!

It has been a really interesting experience to be on the other side of a conference - the organizing side. The staff here at World's Best School have worked their tails off to make sure everything is thought of, executed correctly, and completed satisfactorily. Every detail has to be considered, and I am so impressed at how well everything has gone. I have a new appreciation for the incredible amount of hours and dedicated people it takes to pull this kind of thing off.

When I next attend a conference, whenever I take a drink of provided ice water, or follow a posted sign to the bathroom, or consult a distributed schedule, or make use of my complimentary conference canvas bag, I will send a mental thank-you to the staff.

And at the end of my next future conference, I will take the time to stop by the registration desk and offer a personal thank-you as well.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Running of the Brides

I have a friend who is engaged (really, who of my friends isn't now-a-days? sheesh...) who asked me to help her last Friday.

She wanted me and a few other friends to come to the "Running of the Brides" with her. I said of course, although I did blink a bit at the 7:30am time on Friday morning. The Running of the Brides is a twice-annual event held by Filene's, and I was under the impression that it was basically a huge wedding dress sale.

But oh, my, how naive I was... "dress sale" as applied to this event is about as correct as applying a "quick bite" to a full dinner at The Four Seasons.

The Running of the Brides is not held in any retail store - oh, no - it's in the convention center. I arrived at 7:30 to find my friends, who had been holding their spot in line since 5:30am.

Each bride comes with an entourage of four or five girlfriends, all there to help secure a dress. An astonishing percentage of the groups have matching T-shirts (usually pink): "Trisha's Bridal Party" or "Running of the Brides 2009" or "Ivory Dress or Bust!". Many groups also wear matching headgear - hats, headbands, feathers.... something to help them quickly identify themselves.

At exactly 8am, the doors to the showroom floor open.

The masses rush forward, nearly trampling any slow runners, and dash to the dresses hanging on racks. The idea is to grab as many dresses as possible, not caring what style or size or anything else.

Girls push and shove and bear-hug as many dresses as they can still hanging on the rack. But the rule is that the dress is not yours until it's actually off the rack, so sometimes others would try to pry the dresses out of the arms of someone doing the bear-hugging.

At exactly 8:02, all the dresses are cleaned out.

Each group of bride and friends generally has a flag-bearer - someone with a flag, or balloons, or brightly colored scarf to wave. Each person makes their way back to the bride (watching for their group's feathers or T-shirts or whatever matching gear helps them find each other) with whatever dresses they have managed to snag. I got none, thank you very much, I was not prepared to be aggressive enough to get within 20 feet of any dress...

All the brides then strip down to underwear, and start trying on dresses. Many groups had brought mirrors (the kind that hang on the back of a door, full length) for just this purpose, as there are no dressing rooms.

My job as supporting cast was to sort through the pile of dresses we had collected, finding the ones in the right size range.

Then the whole operation transforms into a bartering society - people would walk around with signs saying "Need 2,4,6" or "6,8,10 with sleeves" and trade what they have for what they want.

I unfortunately couldn't stay to see if my friend ended up buying anything, but I sure hope after all that rigamorole she did!

As I was walking out, I saw some women slowly wandering toward the room, clutching their purses or a Starbucks coffee cup, obviously looking forward to a shopping day of hunting through sale racks. They were obviously not informed or prepared for the intensity and unique rules of this event.

I, as a newly initiated "bride-runner," felt a bit sorry for them, and I wished I could see their faces when they walked into the melee. I had the sudden urge to tell them "Did you grab a quick bite for breakfast yet?"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Catch-22

I have a flaw in my work process. I am usually very good at staying on top of tasks, pressing forward on to-do lists, and generally don't procrastinate.

The problem is that there is a point - and goodness knows I wish I could pin down exactly when this point occurs - where I have TOO MUCH to do. And then I can't make myself do any of it. Even if I break it down into a To-Do list, I still feel overwhelmed and I don't know where to start.

This is a problem, because the times at which you have too many things to do are also the times when you most need to be doing them.

This last happened to me while I was trying to write my thesis, and also not drop the ball for classes and research. Now granted, I am not nearly as stressed this week as I was then (whew!). But I am a bit overloaded, because the other two students who are working on a project with me are both on vacation - so I've been doing extra duty. And of course, the project is behind schedule, as most collaborative projects end up being.

So it's a Catch-22. I don't feel motivated because I have too much on my plate, but I can't start clearing off my plate without at least a little bit of motivation...

My saving grace is that I make up for these periods of low productivity with a super-efficient week afterwards where I apply myself to work. When I truly do focus and use my brain for what it's worth, I can get an astonishing amount accomplished.

But I'd like to improve this Catch-22 flaw in my work process. I need to not simply give up when I have too much to do, because professors (or a boss) need to know I can be depended on to get things done, especially in a crunch.

I think I'm at least on the right track by recognizing I need to improve this, and understanding that it's just sort of how I handle things. I am hereby committing myself to getting task #1 (happens to be placing a DigiKey order) off my list this afternoon.

After, you know, I take a long lunch. :)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Beef Stroganoff

I had a craving for beef stroganoff last week, so I whipped up a batch from this recipe. The 1/3 cup white wine added a lovely crisp finish to the sauce, and I used goat cheese instead of sour cream (I had bought some as topping for the fennel stew, and needed to use it up) which added a creamy touch to the sauce. It turned out even better than the usual sour cream - I think I'd do it that way again even if I had to buy goat cheese especially for the purpose. Served with a side of fresh yellow and green beans.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Occasionally people will ask me (when I give tours of the lab, or when I'm talking to highschoolers/undergrads), "Miss Outlier, is there anything you wish you'd known during college?" Or, a variation on this question, "What advice would you give to engineering students?"

There are many things it would have helped me to know in college. Most of these things, I would have ignored if someone told me. I generally don't give much advice, because I learned mostly by figuring it out myself, as students have done for many generations before me, and will for many generations after me.

But there are a couple things I know now that I would have sold a kidney on the black market for when I was taking engineering classes.

One of these: the existence of a site called

This is a site that lets you upload blueprints, or drawings, or CAD files, or I'm guessing even a hand drawn sketch if it gets across your meaning. For instance, I recently put up this part which I needed machined from aluminum:

I only use this site for machining, but you can also do stamping, extrusions, injection molding, anodizing, even FABRIC WEAVING if you so desire. Whatever it is you need manufactured, you specify what you want made, and send it out for quotes. Manufacturing places from all around the world (and I do mean literally, from every country you can think of - I would stay away from Tanzania, personally) can then give you a price quote for your item. You specify how soon you want the quote, and when your delivery date for the part is. Obviously, the sooner you need it the more expensive it might be.

Then you take a look at the companies and job shops offering to make your part - the rating of the company, the price they bid, and any other factors you find relevant - and award the job to someone. There is no minimum order - if a company doesn't think it can make money off of one part, they simply won't bid.

Shortly thereafter, your parts show up on your doorstep.

This, my friends, is game changing.

This allows anyone who can design a part to have it made. I am no longer constrained by my own machining abilities (which are above average, but obviously I'm just a student) or by the tools I have available (I actually now have state-of-the-art machine shops at my disposal, but I certainly did not in college).

And even if I have a part that a) I could machine myself, and b) I have the tools to make, this allows me to trade my time for money. In college, sometimes I simply did not have 10 hours in a week to make something. I would have gladly paid someone in China $30 to do it for me, but I didn't know I had that option.

Having the option is key. I don't use this all the time, because making things is actually my favorite part of research, but in a crunch it's a lifesaver.

And for the record, China is hella cheap and I have always gotten good quality parts (I throw out the bottom 10-20% of bids, because I suspect those would be poorly made). One time, a job shop in China submitted a picture of my part that they had ALREADY MADE with their bid to tell me how much it would be. I nearly spit my coffee onto my laptop when I saw that. Like, "There's my part! Right there! Sitting on a table in China! And they don't even know yet if I will accept their bid!?" For the record, I did go with that company, because their price was fantastic. Also, talk about a fast delivery date - shove that thing in the mail and send it on over here!

This whole concept in general and the site in particular is, I think, a stunningly efficient combination of the global market, the power of the internet, and direct communication between end user and manufacturing producer.

So I suppose when asked "If you could tell yourself something five years ago, what would it be?" my answer would have to include:

Outsource your job to China.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Graduate Class List

At the end of Spring '11, I shall have taken all classes required for my entire life.

Major: Machine Design

1 Precision Machine Design
2 Product Design
3 Control Systems
4 Advanced Control Systems
5 Manufacturing
6 Manufacturing Control Systems
7 Mechatronics
8 Development of Mechancial Products
9 Invention
10 Mechanical Assemblies
11 Design and Fabrication of MEMS

Minor: Entreprenuership

1 New Enterprises
2 Entreprenuership
3 Innovation

I am not sure what life might be like without classes. Will there by any need at all for three ring binders? With no homework, will my pencils dissolve? Is there still chocolate in a world with no tests?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thesis Card

The small, unassuming pamphlet that will rule my life for the next several years has been bestowed upon me.

It is: the thesis card.

I don't know how other schools do this, but here every PhD student receives a two page, folded cardstock thesis card when they pass qualifying exams. The card is kept on file at the main office, and must be checked out with special permission whenever you need to add anything to it. It summarizes your PhD career in nearly chronological order.

Figure 1: Page 1

The only thing I can fill out so far is my name and the date I passed qualifying exams, and my thesis advisor. Soon, I will have to choose a thesis topic and a PhD committee, and the approved topic and committee signatures will be added to the front page.

Figure 2: Pages 2 and 3

Next, my program of classes for major and minor areas of study. I just discussed this with my advisor today - I made up a little schedule of everything I plan to take between now and graduation. It's an exciting list, I have to say. Interesting classes taught by giants in their respective fields - it's such a thrill to be crafting my own plan of study! My advisor has approved of the list, but I need to have signatures (again) from all of my eventual committee members.

The back page is reserved for committee comments at each committee meeeting. At each future committee meeting, I will check out this card and bring it to the meeting. The committee will record their comments on my progress, recommendations for next time, and anything else they find relevant. The number of times you have to check out this card is rather correlated to how critical those comments are.... :)

Figure 3: Back Page 4

And finally, the back page is reserved for your thesis title, date of defense, comments of committee at defense, and - ah heaven, draw near! - the signatures of all your committee for a final time, approving your doctorate.

So me and this paper are going to be close for the next few years (three, according to my timeline). We're gonna make it together, baby.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Stages in Life

For the past three years or so, all of my undergrad friends have been having a marriage explosion. The majority of people I knew in undergrad are now married. Every other week, it seems, another Facebook album of a beautiful wedding is posted. I am thrilled for them all (except the one girl who married the jerk none of us likes, but really, there had to be one of those in every hundred, right?).

I remember when my four other best girl friends in college and I would be hanging out on the weekends, wondering if we would EVER. FIND. a BOYFRIEND. And now one of those friends just celebrated her first anniversary, and another just moved in with her boyfriend.

I feel like I have just gotten used to this new state of affairs. And THEN, my friends have started springing THIS on me:

(My college roomate's wee one)


(My labmate's first child)

And part of me wants to say, how old does this mean I am getting now? TWO of my friends have wives pregnant with the SECOND child. Gack!

But how can I stay upset when I keep looking at these sweet cheeks:

(Childhood friend's bouncing baby girl)

So go forth, friends! Procreate! I gladly let you all take the next step in life. Because I get to hold and cuddle the precious little bundles, and then I get to GIVE THEM BACK. :)

Fennel Vegetable Stew with Polenta Rounds, and Roasted Plums

The next recipe in my cookbook called for fennel, and I have to admit I had to run a Google image search to figure out what exactly I was looking for in the grocery store. This:

What kind of a vegetable with a bad hair day is that? I also had to look up how to prepare it - turns out the bulb is the main part for the stew, you can eat the stalks like celery sticks, and the feathery stuff you dice for spice flavoring. This is a very hardworking multi-purpose vegetable, readers.

Prepared in a stew such as:

It becomes very tasty. Pair it with toasted polenta rounds:

And serve with a sprinkling of goat's cheese:

And it becomes delicious!

For dessert, roasted plums in a few tablespoons of brown sugar, with cool whip (or whatever ridiculous overpriced organic "whip" Whole Foods sells - how in the world do you even make cool whip organic?):

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Payment for Conferences

I am currently registering myself for a conference where I am presenting this fall.

Usually I use a lab-issued credit card to make purchases (I find this much more convenient than asking the secretary to order things for me, and I'm sure she appreciates it too). But there are restrictions on the card - and one of them is travel. So I can't put the conference fees or the hotel fees on the credit card.

I can charge it with my own credit card, but I don't get reimbursed until after the conference. This makes sense, the rule is there to make sure people actually go and don't just book stuff without following through. But the conference is in October, and it's kind of a lot to ask grad students to float the money for that long, especially when reimbursements can take up to five weeks after you turn in the receipts when you get back.

But you know what? I can make it work. And you know why I'm not inclined to complain about this?

Because my lab has always paid in full for my conferences.

I didn't realize this wasn't standard procedure until I was talking with another student who was trying to decide if going to a conference was worth the cost he would have to pay from his own pocket. Some PIs I know only pay your air fare, and you have to get your own hotel. Other PIs have a cap on how many conferences they will pay for each year. I think the policy varies depending on the PI, the state of funding for the particular lab, and whether the professor thinks it is worth it for the student to go. I mean, I can understand not wanting to fund a student to go to seven conferences in exotic locations per year.

But now I'm curious - if you are in a lab, how do you decide what conferences to attend and who foots the bill?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Help With Decisions

My research specialty is machine design. I built a machine for my Master's degree.

Currently I am building a new machine, call it 2.0, that does something slightly different than machine 1.0 but closely related. So I am drawing on the knowledge that I gained from building machine 1.0, duplicating as much as I can. However I also get the chance to fix all the design decisions that I completely boggled up the first time around.

There is one piece on my machine 1.0 that has a tendency to shatter. It gives me excellent performance, but that's just poor design on my part. Shattering is not an acceptable mode of operation, unless perhaps I am building missiles. And since building a potato gun is as close as I have ever come to making missiles, designing something to shatter is not on my list of appropriately funded activities.

(Aquanet fuel all the way, baby!)

So I have been redesigning this piece of my machine for version 2.0. But I have found myself stuck. I have spent a week working on this, and it has come down to several choices.

1) Buy the thing perfectly suited to what I want, which is an experimental cutting-edge product just barely on the market (of course, I do research, nothing I want is going to be COMMON or EASY to FIND...). Cost: about $2000, while my current shattering piece solution is only $200.

2) Make the thing I want myself, which I think is doable but tricky and unknown. It potentially involves some very fancy knowledge from well outside my specialty. And my fear is that "tricky" may turn into "uh-oh this is not doing what I want, oh crud it's going to take me five weeks to debug this, crimeny this is way more complicated than I expected!" Then we have a cost of materials: $200, time: 5 weeks, and student frustration: 2 handfuls of pulled hair.

3) Buy something commercially available that doesn't shatter, but doesn't quite give me the performance I want. This gives cost: $200, research contribution to the field: 0.

To add a final twist, other people are waiting impatiently for machine 2.0 to use themselves, and they don't need the cutting-edge performance I am really driving for. They just need something to WORK.

So perhaps, come to think of it, I should go with option #3, while I work on option #2?

Comments, internet hordes?