Monday, January 31, 2011

LaserCut Gingerbread, Or: "What If" is a Dangerous Question

Right before Christmas last year, I was baking gingerbread. I invited a friend over to help eat the cookies (otherwise I'd eat them all myself, and goodness knows with all the other holiday sweets around I didn't need THAT). Then he asked that tantalizing, juicy question: "Miss Outlier, I wonder if...."

He didn't know that "What if" is catnip to engineers, and curious individuals like me will jump on it. Or, you know, maybe he did. :)

He proceeded to explain that you can actually laser cut gingerbread, and, well, obviously. We should try it. Did I mention that I PARTICULARLY love it when I have the correct tools to pursue the "What if...." in question?

Figure: Enter the laser cutter. I swear I use this for research. Sometimes.

So as I was making cookies, I made some extra large sheets for lasercutting purposes. Had to make a few  sheets, of course, because I expected I'd ruin some with experimenting/prototyping. There aren't settings for "cookie" in my laser cutter manual...

Figure: Stock for the project.

I was still stuck on snowflakes, and I had a bunch of files for ornament shapes, so that's what I went with. After a few trials, I got the settings right.

Figure: Snowflake! Gingerbread!

I kept the fire extinguisher handy - because the danger with flammable materials in the laser cutter is, well, things can catch on fire. Would not look good on the safety rep's record. :)

But luckily, all was well!

Figure: Aw, how cute.

And because this was in my lab, it just seemed appropriate that when I finished making parts I stored them in a petri dish.

Figure: And of course, I labeled the dish with the date and experiment number.

I discovered that my stock was not really the optimum shape - see below, I accidentally cut off a corner. Whoops!

But I did end up with an assortment of finished gingerbread snowflakes, which I was pretty pleased with.

The whole lab smelled good after I was done - because the laser was essentially toasting the cookies, so it smelled like they just came out of the oven! Made me hungry, actually. So in the spirit of research, my friend and I tried munching on the leftover scraps.

Figure: He's smiling here, but that's because he hasn't take a bite yet.

The verdict: terrible. The fumes or something from the laser gets into the material. Not good for eating. Oh well, that's what the rest of the batch of cookies was for!

Figure: This is how you take the photo when you want it to look like cool research. Lots of shiny silver bits in the background.

The funniest part was when I was relaying this story to a non-engineering friend, expecting the response of "oh, how cool! awesome, Miss Outlier!" But instead, my friend wrinkled her nose, looked at my little snowflakes, and pronounced, "You know, I have a cookie cutter shaped like a snowflake. You could have just used that."

True, true, that's a viable option. Logical, even. But really? A cookie cutter? Missing the point. LASERS, girl, lasers!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the Subject of Safety

One of the things I do as the senior member of the lab, in addition to my clean-up afternoon decrees, is deal with all safety issues. (Don't worry, there's only three of us in my lab, so that keeps me from getting too carried away with power...) I'm the official Safety Representative, so I have to make sure we have all chemicals in proper storage, all equipment maintained to code (hello fume hood inspections), and all members of the lab are current on their safety training. I try to keep things like this from happening. :)

I actually was required to go through some training to be the safety rep - it took an entire afternoon of sitting through presentations. Yech. Important stuff, I know, but BORING.

I also have to report the status of the lab's hazards every year to the central safety office, and turn in an annual chemical report so the government can keep track of what nasty things are where. Fortunately, I'm in a mechanical lab, so the chemical hazards are nearly nonexistent. Acetone, anyone? Isopropyl? Yeah, nobody cares.

Much more hazardous are the mechanical things we have. We own a plasma treater, which creates a plasma field for processing polymers. We have a laser cutter. We build a lot of our own equipment with high voltages (AC and DC) and large currents. For a while we had a undergrad investigating flame treatment, which involved a setup to test a nice assortment of flammable materials and gases. And we have a very powerful scara robot arm, which can take your head off if it goes wild.

Figure: Talk to the arm.

Most of the time I adhere to all rules, and try to be a good little safety officer. In fact, we had a random safety inspection one day (I wasn't even in the office at the time), and they found exactly zero issues to report.

But then sometimes, things aren't exactly on the straight and narrow.

That plasma treater? Yeah, we bought it off of eBay, and it looks to be about from the 80s. The "on" switch didn't work, so one student (before my time) just attached a 9V battery and an alligator clip that you connect when you want to fire it up.

And the robot? Well, we installed a fancy laser-triggered barrier to cordon off the area with the arm, so that the robot automatically shuts off if the laser is crossed. The problem is that the barrier is quite far from the robot, so you can't see very well from outside the barrier. So most of the time I will just stand inside the barrier and avoid triggering the laser while the robot is running. (Ah lovely, now the barrier is trapping me INSIDE... that can't be good...)

Because we use things like acetone, IPA, and ethanol so often, we have squeeze bottles of those chemicals left out on the counter (in appropriate secondary containment, of course). We also use methanol, and there's a squeeze bottle of that too. But just yesterday, someone pointed out that technically, methanol is only supposed to be used with gloves under a fume hood... whoops.

Fortunately, there's never been a serious accident in my lab since I've been here. A scrape or two in the machine shop is the worst that goes on. But just yesterday, I was working on a silicon wafer, and while I was prying it out of my setup, it broke and splashed the ethanol I was rinsing it with into my eyes. Ouch! Fortunately I'm fine, but it's a good reminder that bad things can indeed happen if you are lazy.

Figure: Safety goggles, Miss Outlier, it's not hard - just wear them...
Do you have someone designated in your lab to deal with safety stuff? If you had to grade your lab, would you give yourself an A for safety?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Your Brain On Science

One of the cool things about living in Boston (which is FULL of research universities already) and being surrounded by research at World's Best School, is that there are always opportunities to learn and participate in cool science. Sometimes it's a simple as attending seminars. But I also think it's fun to participate in research studies.

Figure: xkcd, as always, hits the nail on the head

There are ALWAYS flyers up in the halls asking for people to join experiments. It's actually not worth my time to volunteer, but if it pays at least $20 an hour, hey I'm game! In addition to flyers in the hall, the Behavioral Research Lab needs so many guinea pigs that they have their own website to handle all the studies.

I have participated in studies on gambling, teamwork, judging people and products, and negotiation. I got to user-test a system for controlling robotic arms on the space station. Those are all fairly little studies, that only take an hour, or maybe a handful of hours over several days. Of course I'm also in a big long-term medical study that tracks the effect of calories on your health over two years.

But I have to tell you about my absolute favorite study - a depth perception study.

The purpose of the study is to understand how the brain processes images to determine depth. Apparently, your brain uses all sorts of clues to estimate depth in your surroundings. The most obvious, and common, is that your brain compares the images from your two eyes, and interprets the difference between the images as depth. That's why when you close one eye, you can't tell depth as well. But that's not the only way your brain works - it also uses shadowing, for example, and vanishing-point perspective

The researchers want to figure out what the brain is doing, and then use that to help people who either a) only have one eye providing data to the brain (due to injury or very poor/lopsided eyesight), or b) have trouble with depth perception because their brain isn't processing normally.

I've gone to three sessions for this study. For the first one, I looked at images on a screen, and pressed buttons corresponding to what I saw. I also had to do things like thread needles and assemble parts with one eye closed.

On the second trip, I got to look at the same images, but inside an MRI machine! So the researchers can see what parts of the brain light up when looking at images with and without depth. And the coolest part? They printed me a picture of my brain.

Figure: Behold! Miss Outlier's brain. A lot of time, money, and schooling went into this...
And then six months later, I came back and did the same thing (to replicate the data - make sure my brain hadn't changed between then and now...). I told them that since it's Winter Break, it's entirely possible that my brain is on vacation, so if they see any discrepancies, they could attribute the change to that!

And I got another picture.

Figure: Miss Outlier's brain, round 2.

How many people get paid to take an MRI of their brain? How many people EVER get to see their brain? That is AWESOME!

The lady did worry me a bit when she gave me this latest printout, though. She looked at me worriedly and said, "Well I'm not supposed to tell subjects this...." Oh no, I thought, they found something terrible like a tumor up there. "But you have really defined folds in your brain." she continued, and then looked at me expectantly.

Huh? Is that bad? What is your brain SUPPOSED to look like? Doesn't that just mean I sat really still?

With a little more prodding, it turns out that apparently a lot of people's brains look more blurry or fuzzy than mine does. The researcher made it sound like mine was abnormally good.

I don't know how to read MRIs, of course, so I have no idea. But somehow I'm not surprised I'm abnormal. I'm an outlier, right? :)

Have you ever participated in a research study? (And P.S., if you have any idea what the brain is supposed to look like, do speak up in the comments. :))

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dinner Club, One Year Anniversary

There are some things that you are not supposed to do just by yourself. Things like watching a movie at the theater, going to Disneyland, going to Las Vegas, or eating out at restaurants.

Some things I do by myself anyway (um, do you realize how EASY it is to find just ONE seat at the movies? I get prime viewing every time!). For some things, like traveling, I will wait until plans with friends fall into place. And for some things, well, I try to make them happen.

Such was the case with Dinner Club. I wanted to eat, at cool places in Boston, with friends.

Well, why not? With a nod to my family's infamous motto, "How hard can it be?", the monthly dinner outing was born. The first outing was last January, to an Ethiopian restaurant.

I am pleased to note that tonight, we are heading out for the Jan 2011 outing, a full year later. We've gone eleven times so far (only one month did we have to cancel). We've been to places that serve French Cambodian, Italian, Indian French, Tapas, Shabu-Shabu, and Brazilian food. I think next month will be Turkish.

The original email list has grown from just my friends, to friends of friends, and significant others of friends, and new labmates, and new classmates, and whoever else was interested. Instead of me having to come up with new places each month, now I just pick from all the suggestions. Instead of being limited by getting enough people to come, now we are limited by how many the restaurant can take for reservations.

You know, I've been quite involved with student life at my time here at World's Best School. I've been the RA for a graduate dorm, the RA for an undergrad dorm, spent two years as an officer in the MechE student club, been in an entrepreneurship club for two years, and been to countless student life events. But this is the most diverse thing I do. Usually an event is marketed to a specific group of people - just MechE students, or just first year students, or just students who live in this dorm.

But because this dinner thing just grew by word of mouth, we have people who live all over, from all points along the PhD journey, from all sorts of different majors. Old, cynical grad students usually won't come to social stuff anymore (young bushy tailed grad students just discourage them, perhaps?), but they will come to eat. Brand new grad students sometimes feel awkward going to something where they don't know anybody, but what's more low-key than simple dinner? I invite new labmates when they arrive, and it's an easy way for them to meet people.

The other type of event that brings people together like this is events that involve drinking - a pub crawl, or karaoke, or trivia night at the bar. But not everybody drinks - especially my friends, who are not really the hardcore partying type. So, again, dinner works! And the fact that it's at a different place every month keeps it interesting.

The only thing better would be if it were cheaper.

But then someone gave me a suggestion - the guy who organizes the Scotch tastings, actually, when I was talking to him. If this event really is this well-liked, and well-attended, and diverse, and supports student life, why not apply for a grant? The concept has surely been proven, now that we're one year in.

So I did.

I put in an application to get some funding from World's Best School, to subsidize the cost of meals. I won't know for another month or two if the application is accepted, but fingers crossed. Worth a shot, anyway! In the meantime, I'm still enjoying the food and friends.

And maybe this can be an inspiration to you - why not invite a couple friends, take yourself out or eat in, and catch up on life? Surely there's a place in your area that you've been meaning to try, or a new food you've been wanting to cook. If it'll shift your mind from work to fun, what's not to like about that?


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Handmade Ornaments, Or: How to Make An Engineer Happy

I was invited by a friend last Christmas to participate in an ornament swap. Basically, each person handmakes a Christmas tree ornament, and swaps it to for someone else's. I really like the idea - it's a thoughtful, cheap way to spread the holiday cheer with your friends.

Simple, right? Make an ornament, Miss Outlier.


What my friend didn't realize is that he had just given Miss Outlier - a mechanical engineer who particularly LOVES to build things - an interesting, open-ended design problem. A girl with a nearly infinite list of cool possibilities for use of machinery and materials, given the chance to design an object that had NO functional requirements except to hold itself together enough to hang on a branch.

PERFECT. See you in three days.

So while Miss Outlier was supposed to be working on her PhD thesis, and her final class project, and taking care of her dorm residents during finals, and organizing a conference - what was she doing?

Very happily puttering around in lab, daydreaming about ornament design and playing with ideas.

Should it be milled, from aluminum? Or waterjetted from something fun, like a pretty piece of scrap tile? Or maybe crafted with cabinetry joints, from cherry or oak? So many possibilities!

And then I made the mistake of bringing up the idea at the lunch table with a bunch of other MechE students. Quickly the ideas flashed around the table - what if you 3D printed it, with a captured piece inside an outer sphere? What if you made it from acrylic, and installed LEDs? Oh, how cool would it be to have LASERS!?

Woah, okay. Pull it back a notch.

In the end I had to settle on something - so I pulled up this cool website, where you can download files for 2D shapes that can be laser cut and assembled into 3D sculptures. I chose to try making this star:

I have a stockpile of acrylic plastic (the same stuff fake nails are made of) that I keep for my own projects, and since acrylic is a dream to laser cut, I decided to stick with that. I actually do have blue and other colors, but I decided to try it first with the plain clear stuff (which I have a bunch of).

Figure: Enter the laser cutter.
In the picture below, what you are looking at is the shiny silver laser cutter table, with a clear sheet of acrylic on top. You may be able to see the curvy leaf shapes that I just finished cutting out.

When I took all the pieces out, I realized two things: there were a lot of them.

And they were pretty big.

Figure: Note how the pieces take up most of my desk.

Hmm. I began to get an inkling that perhaps this might be a little large scale for an ornament... But hey, might as well put it together.



Still working....

Drat it all!

Jamming, forcing....

This is not an easy sculpture. I'm calling bad design. (Can't possibly be user error, right...?) The slots were shallow, so there wasn't much material in contact to hold the parts together (deep slots means more secure connections). And when I DID get them aligned properly, the fit was jiggly, so the whole thing wasn't stable.

So I used super glue on intermediate connections, to try to hold it together in stages. And then I had to use rubber bands to hold the intermediate stages together while THEY dried.

And then because most of it was superglued, the last connection wouldn't line up, and I broke a corner.

Figure: Assembly via rubber bands. Note white clip due to broken corner. Classy.
Bugger. And it wasn't even that pretty. And my hunch was correct - it was very large. About a 9" sphere. My one requirement is that it has to hang on a tree, and this would probably bend the poor branch!

Figure: Ornament try #1 fail.
But, I have no shortage of ideas! I wasn't ready to give up the laser cutting manufacturing method - it's quick to prototype, free to use the machine, cheap material cost, and now it's a point of pride since the first design didn't work out. I decided to go with an interlocking design this time, to eliminate the superglue debacle. And a smaller shape. I stuck with the clear acrylic, for prototyping, again since I have the most of it. Instead of a star, let's just try a snowflake...

Figure: Seriously, only 20 minutes minutes later. Awesome.
 Oh! So much better. All it took was a few simple snaps together, and I had a pretty decent looking ornament. A little plain looking, perhaps. How about the size?

Figure: Ornament try #2. Better - but now too small?

Well now I feel that next to the other one, this ornament looks almost a bit pathetic. Too small. But fortunately that's an easy fix. This one is out of 1/16" acrylic, so I can easily scale the whole thing up to 1/8" sheets. And, as a bonus, I have a lot of fun colors in 1/8" - so I can solve the plain-looking problem at the same time.

Figure: Ornament try #3.
I chose blue fluorescent acrylic, clear acrylic, and a mirror-backed acrylic as my materials.

Figure: Ornament #3, view #2, from the non-mirrored angle.
 I am pleased with the aesthetics. But how about the size?

Figure: Size check, Goldilocks edition - just right!
Perfect! I added a couple drops of superglue (not structural, I'd like to note - just for security) and called it a day!

Figure: Now THAT is a proper ornament.
So in conclusion, Miss Outlier was very pleased with her contribution to the ornament swap. Sometimes I just have to sit back and think - man, I have access to some pretty cool equipment. I mean - of COURSE I made laser cut snowflakes from .dxf files in SolidWorks. I mean, what did YOU do?

Oh wait - yours has lasers?

There's always next year... :)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

3rd Year, 306th Post

Well, dear readers, I've made it to my third year of blogging.

First post was Jan 6th, 2009.

200th post was Jan 24th, 2010 (about science fiction movie night).

As a side note, this past Saturday night/Sunday morning I attended my third Annual Science Fiction Movie Marathon. As with previous years, I couldn't quite last the whole marathon, but I LOVED it as always! The lineup this year was: i, Robot, 12 Monkeys, pizza break!, XMen, XMen II, and Independence Day. I was tired after XMen, and I'd already seen XMen II, so I wimped out and went home. But one of the girls from my dorm floor stayed for the whole thing! I've got awesome residents in my RA job. :)

And this post is my 306th post (I flew right through 300 without noticing).

Since July of 2010, my top posts were Underwater Hockey (2,006 page views, mostly from Google searches), Straight On (521 page views),  Tape Measure CAD (159 page views), and Logo Design (147 page views). I've had either over 12,000 total page views since last July (via Blogger Stats), or just over 10,000 (via Google Analytics). [I think the discrepancy is Blogger counting myself viewing my own blog.]

Blogger tells me I have 35 followers, and Google tells me there are 83 people subscribed to my feed. That's a very tiny corner of the Internet, but it's my corner all the same. :)

I was struck the other day by how much I enjoy the simple act of writing down what's going on in my life. I was trying to remember my thoughts on a particular event (and goodness knows my memory fails me often these days, even on what HAPPENED, much less how I FELT about it) that occurred in 2008. I thought, well that's easy - let me just see what I blogged about it. But alas! No blog in 2008!

And I am also taking some credit for still posting, after over two years. I've never posted less than 4 times a month. My best months were Feb 2009 (23 posts) and Jan 2010 (22 posts). Laugh! Can you tell that I'm a student, and not as busy over winter break? :)

Every so often on Facebook I see friends excitedly announcing a new blog. Sometimes WordPress, or LiveJournal, but usually Blogger. I always subscribe in my Google RSS Reader, and I enjoy getting the updates. But inevitably, they last a couple months and then I hear nothing. Or they delete them altogether.

So I'm proud of myself for lasting this long. I'm no dooce, for sure, but goodness, why would I strive for that? I'm trying to get a PhD here! I'm content to simply resolve to continue blogging. I've got a long list of post subjects in reserve, and if I can find time to write each day I plan to put up a mix of subjects - research, social events and adventures, cooking.

If you write a blog, why do you keep doing it? Has it gone the way you expected, or are you surprised at where you are now?

Monday, January 24, 2011

PhD Committee Requests Sent

So I am pleased to announce that I completed my PhD proposal. It only took one more revision after the last time I thought I was done. :) It's not quite the same idea now as what I started with way back last January. It's close to the original idea, but the work I've done since then has narrowed the scope down - and thank goodness, I think I had enough work in the original proposal for three PhDs! The focus has also changed a bit, because the funding and grants that my advisor is involved in has shifted.

But it's done now. Six pages that say I plan to change the world, or something like that!

And I have officially asked my third committee member to be on my committee. In addition I sent an email with the final proposal to my second committee member - to update him on my progress, and confirm that he is still interested, given the slightly new direction. And honestly, to simply remind him! It's been a while since I talked to him... I've been a little slow...

I remember when I first read this blog post in March 2009, describing one woman's method of asking professors to be on her committee, from a blog that now doesn't exist anymore. I was studying for quals and finishing my Master's. I remember thinking that forming a PhD committee seemed so far in the future, and seemed so complicated.

Now, with the benefit of a little more experience in grad school, I suspect that SouthernGradGirl really did make it more complicated than necessary. :) But to each their own!

I just sent each professor an email, attaching my manageable length six-page proposal, and a clear succinct email with all relevant details. Very much like Blue Lab Coat's advice, actually!

The second committee member replied quickly, expressing interest and asking when my first committee meeting would be held. I'm waiting for the third member, but I suspect they will agree as well.

So, my goodness - I think that means I need to have a committee meeting! Onward!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

'Fess Up

I've been learning the hard lesson recently that "the truth will out," no matter what it is. Even if you'd like to avoid the truth, or pretend things aren't as they actually are, or you think it will be less painful to gloss over the truth - it's really not. Better to 'fess up and confront the truth, as early and as often as possible.

For instance - this year I am helping organize a conference. The same one I helped organize last year, actually. I am in charge of getting four panelists for my assigned panel, and a case study speaker. I was supposed to be researching potential panelists, and sending out invitations, in November of 2010. If the conference is in March, you want to start early.

But I wasn't on my game.

I got distracted, I wasn't motivated, and I just plain didn't get it done. I did SOME work, but a pretty pathetic amount.

And suddenly I had the conference organizers on my tail, wondering what was going on, and where are my panelists?

At first I brushed it off, saying, I'm working on it, it's December and the holidays slowed me down - but don't worry! I'm on top of it! Things are coming together! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

But now it's January. And I'm applying the painful lesson that the truth is always better than avoidance.

I sent an email to the conference organizers. I said, I'm sorry, I've been slacking off my work. Here's what I've done, it's not much, and here is where I honestly am. I asked for help. I outlined what I needed, and asked for some assistance. And I offered to volunteer extra time during the "calling" phase, where we contact people in the database to see if they want to register this year.

And you know what? It was worth it. My conscience felt so much better after I had laid out exactly where I stood. I felt a little sad that I didn't keep up with what I had promised, but at least nobody was being mislead, and everybody was on the same page with the real situation.

So here's hoping that this inspires you this week - stick to the truth, in personal and professional life. No varnishing, no avoidance, just reality. 'Fess up. It's always the right choice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Anatomy of a PhD Defense

I remember the first time I went to a PhD defense. I had just finished my first semester as a grad student, and I still had no idea how the graduate student culture worked. I had no idea what to expect during a doctoral dissertation defense.

Now, I'm old and cynical. I started to lose track of the people I knew that had graduated, so now I keep a list of defenses I have attended. This morning, I attended my tenth defense. (I have more friends that have graduated, but sometimes I can't make it to the actual event.)

I was walking over to the room this morning with two first-year grad students. Today was the first defense THEY had ever attended. I started to explain the typical procedures, and I just had a clear sense of time marching on. All things turn over, all new things become old and then new again...

Man, I really am getting old.

But one of the benefits of age is also (hopefully) wisdom. And if not wisdom, at least the ability to draw comparisons. I've seen a fairly wide range of things happen at defenses. :) So I thought I would describe a typical defense, at least as it works in Mechanical Engineering at World's Best School.


First, let's get one thing straight. You KNOW you are going to pass. Your committee of advisors won't let you set a defend date unless you are ready. You can be positive that you'll get a check on your thesis card at the end of the day. But you would like to feel that you nailed the presentation, that you handled all the questions with authority and grace, and that you truly earned your degree. Really, you are fighting for the "Check Plus" instead of the "Check".

Figure: But let's be honest. You wouldn't be at World's Best School unless you always fight for the Check Plus.
So you will probably stress about it anyway. My lab has a student seminar series, run by the students, for the students. Students volunteer to present their work, sometimes to ask for help with their research, but most often in preparation for a) a conference talk b) the qualifying exam presentation, or c) a defense. So often, you will give your presentation to the students first, so that you feel confident on defense day.

The choice of classroom to defend in is also key. If you choose a room in the main engineering building, you are liable to get a lot of random professors "dropping in" to listen. "Drop-ins" tend to ask questions. Hard questions. Off-the-wall questions. Questions you are not prepared for. You don't want drop-ins. :) So it is in your best interests to pick a room that is off the beaten path. Ditto for the time and day (Friday afternoons, everybody is looking for something not-work-related to do... so Monday at 9am is much better), but you don't have much control over that. It's hard enough to get your three committee professors to all have an hour and a half free to slot you in!

The Introduction

On the day of your defense, your advisor will give you an introduction. Some advisors just say, "Here is my student. They have done well. Student, please begin." But it is more common, and a nice touch, for your advisor to introduce you with a quick review of your graduate career, and perhaps an anecdote or two. For instance, one professor recalled the time that his student set the lab on fire. "Despite which," the professor was quick to add, "I am pleased to announce that subsequent experiments fared much better."

Who Attends

The only people who MUST attend are your committee members. Although this morning, one of the committee members had to video conference in from Japan. And another time, the student's actual advisor wasn't even in the room - he had to Skype in from California! That instance was actually the most extreme case I know - that student had three very hard-to-schedule committee members. They were always traveling, or teaching, or otherwise busy. So even after three separate committee meetings, and the defense, he NEVER had all three people physically in the same room. Now that, my friends, is talent.

In addition, anyone at the university is allowed to attend, and the defense announcement is sent department-wide. (See note on choosing classrooms to avoid too many drop-ins...) So your classmates, your friends, and any student who saw the announcement and found it relevant (or who wants to procrastinate from research) will be there.

And usually (excepting matters of national security) the event is open the the public as well. So your family, girlfriend, or anyone else you can convince to sit through a detailed technical presentation can be there as well. In one case, a very popular social student had an entire cheerleading section at his defense. They actually brought little cardboard cutouts, of a "D" and a white picket fence. (Get it? D! Fence!) That, for the record, I thought was a bit unprofessional...

Finally, there may be students who were your friends and graduated ahead of you. It's actually kind of a mini-reunion at some defenses, with alums coming back to support and congratulate you. Again with the sense of time marching on... the world continually turns. :)


Generally the presentation is in PowerPoint, but I saw one student do his using a presentation class of LaTeX called Beamer. If you don't know what TeX is, or you do but you wish you didn't, don't worry... in some company, I don't admit I'm that big a nerd either...

You want to shoot for 50 minutes of presentation, and then leave 10 minutes for questioning. I saw one student only take 35 minutes for presenting. That's a problem. That simultaneously makes it look like you didn't do very much, and leaves you open for 25 minutes of interrogation.

Figure: No check plus for you.
At the end of the presentation, make sure to give acknowledgments. I saw one student cry during acknowledgments, just from overwhelming emotion. I wouldn't recommend that.

When you take questions, your goal is to a) understand the question, which sometimes is no small feat, then b) come up with a satisfactory answer, preferably a "yes/no" with a reason, or a "depends" with supporting examples. Then, crucially, your job is to c) quickly take the next question before your carefully crafted aura of expertise is further assaulted.

If you make it through all questions, everybody claps again. Then everyone except university professors are dismissed from the room.


Technically any university professor can vote on whether or not you passed, but usually only the committee members will stay to deliberate, and (see Preparation section) you KNOW how they will vote. But they still have to follow proper procedure, so they cloister themselves in the room while everyone waits outside.

You and your friends stand outside the room, discussing amongst yourselves. We hypothesize that the professors actually discuss the weather and their kids for ten minutes, just to make a good show of it. Whatever they actually do, in a short amount of time they peek out the door, and you have to go back inside. They shake your hand, congratulate you, and tell you that you passed.

Then, triumphantly, you return to your friends - Doctor at last!

Post-Defense Reception

There is always a reception with snacky items afterwards. Hey, any excuse to eat, right? Normally it falls on the girlfriend or wife to take care of the reception arrangements, so you can focus on your presentation. I've actually done two receptions (including today), for friends that don't have significant others or family close by. Hey, I did it for my TA class, and all the time for my RA duties, so I'm an expert!

The reception usually also includes drinks - but different students have different styles. When a Mormon labmate graduated, we had sparkling cider. Another student (now on Wall Street) just skipped right to the other extreme and brought vodka! Champagne is most common, and that's what I did today. We polished off three 750mL champagnes at 11am. :) And one and a half orange juice cartons. Mimosas, of course...

Post-Post Defense

-The post party (if any) also depends on your own personal style. Sometimes there is no post party later that night. Sometimes, as in the case of the student who took seven years to graduate, the post party lasts well into the wee hours of the next morning. :) Sometimes the party waits until the weekend.

But whatever your own style, however you prepare, however you handle the questioning, however you celebrate, here's the thing - YOU ARE DONE!

I promise, it does happen. People do graduate. I've seen it, ten times now. May it be me some day, too. I raise my champagne glass - To a successful future defense for all of you, dear readers!

Is this how defenses go in your experience? How does it work in your department and school?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hello to OnlineClasses Physics Geeks!

If you are visiting through this list of 50 Awesome Blogs for Physics Geeks, welcome!

I am honored to be among the list of blogs, which include some of my own favorites. Cosmic Variance is already on my RSS feed, as is Bad Astronomy.

I am sure I am not a physicist. The closest I come is perhaps trying to defy it - when trying to lift a mattress over a balcony, perhaps, or hoist an AC out of a window by myself.

But I do a lot of science, and the grad student experience is pretty universal (why else the terrifyingly accurate humor of PhD Comics?)

I also do a bunch of cooking, and I try to keep a steady stream of adventures in my life.

I'd love to hear who you are, and I hope you stick around to share in the ride. :)

From the Email Queue Today

I am subscribed to the World's Best University school-wide email list for the selling and giving away of goods. If you can put up with the volume of emails to your inbox, you can snag good stuff, often free. Given the eclectic set here at this university, there's no telling what technological gadgetry or random widget may come up. Or, there's things like this....

Subject: [Selling] box of 36 large crickets


Sigh, misunderstandings.



Ah, just imagine the backstory....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Problem with Milk

I like milk. I don't drink very much, but I like it. And if I want milk for something, there's very little that will substitute. Water into coffee? Orange juice with a chocolate chip cookie? I think not. (Actually, my cousin has put Mountain Dew on cereal, but that's a line I just won't cross). When you want fresh milk, you want fresh milk.

However, there is a problem.

If I buy the half gallon in the plastic carton, it will last a week and a half. A gallon lasts a week and a half as well, because it has the same packaging. But it takes me two weeks to drink even the half gallon, so it spoils before I can use it.

If I buy the quart, it comes in a paper carton, and it doesn't seal as well so it spoils in four days. But it takes me a week to drink. So it STILL spoils before I can drink it.

So now my engineering brain kicks in.

"What this really is," my brain considers, "is a constant rate problem."

Miss Outlier drinks milk at a rate of gallon/month, or quart/week.

But the milk spoils at a different rates, which using our data points, is given by the figure below. Also, there is a lower limit to the amount of milk you can buy (nobody sells it by the teaspoon!).

So what's our problem? Well, here's the issue.

I can't buy an amount of milk that I can drink before it spoils!

And in addition, we are not considering complicating factors of, say, price of milk per quart, or hassle cost for buying smaller amounts more frequently. If we added that in, heavens! The problem just gets worse.

And in the meantime, I'm standing here in the kitchen with cereal in a bowl, and no fresh milk. Tragedy.

I posed this problem to a friend (who, for the record, easily can put away a half gallon a day), and the reply was -

Well, Miss Outlier, drink more milk!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Once-A-Year Chores

Today has been a day for doing the pesky To-Do items. We all have items like this, right? I can't be the only one. These are items that only have to be done once in a blue moon - but although done infrequently, they must be done. These are important, but not urgent, so they languish on the To-Do list.

But I am done with the languishing. Also, it is snowing outside, so I want to stay in from the outside. Also, I don't feel like working today. Reasons enough!

So, today I have:

- backed up my computer. Seriously, did you see this news article? Stupid scientists in Oklahoma didn't back up years worth of cancer research and then - wait for it - of course they lost the data. That's just asking for trouble.

- made vegetable stock from all the scraps in my freezer. Sadly, no beets, so it is not pink.

- updated the general journal for my business. Gotta keep the accounting on the up-and-up!

- cleaned all my leather items (boots, jackets, skirts, purses). Given that winter here in Boston is brutal, a little protector/cleaner does wonders. If I'm going to pay for a real leather jacket, I plan for it to last me years!

- imported all photos to my photo storage drive for safekeeping. I'm a bit obsessive over this after I once nearly lost my photos...

- taken stock of the items in my freezer. Sometimes I forget what I have stashed away. Case in point - this morning I found a bunch of frozen waffles. Can we say waffles with strawberries and whipped cream for lunch? Yes please!

Figure: Well worth taking a day home from the office to do chores.
- mopped and vacuumed my floor. I suppose this is not supposed to be a once-in-a-blue-moon activity, but let's face it... it is. So there. You can judge if you want, but today the floor is clean.

- got out my sewing supplies and fixed a hole in my coat pocket. And then since I was on a roll, I went ahead and cleaned out the whole sewing pile, by fixing a ripped skirt and a torn beltloop.

- finished reading a magazine that has been languishing on my bedside table. Miss Outlier very much loves Asimov's Science Fiction. It is a crying shame that I have a backlog of three months of issues to read.

- scheduled lunch with some old friends. It is so sweet to catch up with friends. Friendships should be cherished, and I am determined that I won't let people I care about drift away through neglect.

As always, it surprises me how little time some of these things take. I mean, 20 minutes is all it takes for some of these items. I think to myself, I waited that long - for THIS? For the amount of mental clarity I gain from cleaning up shop, it's well worth the day I'm taking off.

May you also find 20 minutes to cross off a pesky To-Do item!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

SantaCon 2008, 2009, 2010

It began, as most great ideas do, at the lunch table. It was fall semester 2007.

"Hey you know what my friend told me about?" began the ringleader. "New York city has an event every year called SantaCon. He goes every year. And Boston has one too - it's coming up in December."

The table ringed with raised eyebrows asked the obvious question - "Uh... SantaCon?" we quizzed.

"Yeah, a bunch of people dress up as Santa and go on a pub crawl around Boston. It starts at noon and goes until they shut the town down. You want to go?"

Well, obviously.

And so it began. Five of the guys teamed up to get Santa costumes wholesale on the internet, patting themselves on the back for scoring full, red-velvet-black-boots-white-fur, quantity-discount ensembles for $25 a piece. I didn't go that year (2007), but epic stories from that SantaCon lasted all the way to the next summer.

When 2008 rolled around, you bet I was in. And of COURSE the guys were in again. They had already bought the costumes, it would be a shame not to get a second wear out of them! I didn't have a costume, but I figured a red shirt and black dress with boots and a belt ought to at least get me Santa's helper status. I was designated photographer, so I present to you the SantaCon 2008 group of guys:

 The pub crawl starts at noon, where I insisted that we have lunch. Woman needs a burger at noon, not a beer... or so I feel, at least.

The best part about any social event is the people you share it with. The guys in these photos are all characters in their own right, and life will be an adventure whenever they get together. You may recognize Eehern, my travel buddy to Chicago. After the seventh double-take from random passers-by, Eehern just shrugged and said, "Well that's what I get for being an Asian Santa!"

The other fun part of this event is seeing all the OTHER Santas. There were several hundred, and when we "crawled" between bars, the procession was quite a sight.

We met the organizer of the Boston SantaCon:

 And stopped to take a picture in front of Boston City Hall:

 We ended the night by taking a non-scheduled stop at Border Cafe. It was well past dinner time, and I felt that food was needed instead of more beer. Can you tell I don't operate well when I'm hungry? :) When the restaurant owners saw us walk in, they insisted that we meet a large party in the downstairs. The guys played Santa for the laughing and delighted patrons, and we all got free appetizers!

SantaCon 2009

In 2009, after enduring two years of stories from SantaCon, more labmates were convinced to join. This year I borrowed a legitimate costume from a friend.

Cute, right? Well it looked cute when I was among the hundreds of other Santas, but you do get some funny looks as you travel around town. It's particularly disconcerting for people to see Santa on the T... (in Boston, the subway is known as the "T.")

We again started with lunch. Lunch is always a good idea.

There were still characters to keep the day interesting. :)

And "Asian Santa" reprised his appearance for the third year in a row!

The bars were again packed with Santas, throwing off the poor regular patrons just looking for a quiet Saturday out and about.

Random people would come up and stop us on the street, asking to take a picture. We thought it was funny for the first two, or three, or five... but by the tenth person that asked us to take a picture, we got a little tired of it! But when kids came up to talk, we always played the part. Nothing like making a kid's face light up!

This year it wasn't snowing (thank goodness), so the picture in front of City Hall was much more pleasant.

And, to keep to tradition, we again ended the night with late dinner at Border Cafe. Chips and queso for the win.

SantaCon 2010

This year was the third year I've done SantaCon, and the fourth year my lab has done it. 

The group of my friends that goes keeps getting bigger every year! Some students have graduated, so we don't have the same people, and unfortunately not as many Santa suits this year. But at least we were all wearing hats, that counts right?

The bars were always packed. This year the event was so big, that the Santas had to spread out among four or five bars at once just to hold everybody. The more the merrier!

Lunch stop!

There will always be chartacters. Life is no fun without characters. :)

Wrapping up SantaCon 2010 in Harvard Square.

I think now that my lab has done this four years in a row, it's safe to say it's an established tradition. I've enjoyed going, and it really is a bonding and morale-building experience for us as labmates. Of course, we talk about research...... right? Yeah, not so much. :)

And this year, we even made the news!

I'm the girl in the bright red dress.

Cheers to SantaCon, and to social events with friends!