Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Decide

I absolutely do not like feeling as if I do not have a handle on my life. Maybe it's a character flaw, but I like to have my work, my thoughts, and my feelings in line. I've always been a student, and my success or failure has historically been based on my own actions, which I can control. I like to succeed (don't we all?) so I like to control. If some part of my life is not how I want, I do my best to figure out why things are going wrong, and then to fix it. What absolutely grinds me to pieces is when I know something isn't working, and I can't do anything about it.

But as I get deeper and deeper into research (the unknown), and closer and closer to real life (unpredictable people and teams), there becomes more and more I cannot control. I would like to grow and become better at accepting that there are things I cannot control. In the meantime, there are things I can ALWAYS decide. To remind myself, I've made a list:

I decide that I am more important than my research, and there is more to life than work.

I decide that I am beautiful, even if there's nobody around to tell me so.

I decide that I am intelligent, and I will not compete with nor judge others on their intelligence.

I decide that I am worth taking care of, and I will eat, sleep, exercise, and be kind to my body.

I decide that I am allowed to feel any emotion that may come along, and will not accept secondary emotions of shame or denial or guilt for having feelings.

I decide that I will find ways to deal with every situation in life in "real-time," and not just ignore and hope that time will pass and make it go away.

I decide that I can not control how other people act, or how other people feel, and that I do not need to.

And with a nod to a good friend of mine I am trying to learn from, I decide to work as hard and as diligently as I can, and then to live my life with no regrets.

Bring on Monday.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Setting Aside Piloting, Not Giving Up

Back at the beginning of the year, I took a ground school class in preparation for getting my pilot's license. I want to learn to fly, and I was planning to do the class portion of the work in the spring, and the flying part with an instructor in the summer.

And as it turns out, this spring semester the World's Best School Flying Club also got a donation. An alum of the Aerospace school just up and gave his small Cessna 150 plane to the club, as he was too old to fly it anymore himself. "Ah, perfect timing!" I thought. The biggest expense of getting a pilot's license is hiring the plane and the instructor. The Flying Club was planning to make this plane available to club members at a discounted price, along with Flying Club instructors. As in, $80 an hour instead of $130. That makes a big difference when you are talking about a minimum of 50-60 hours...

But, as with many projects, the devil is in the details. It turns out that the plane had significant damage (it's been parked next to the ocean and has been barely used in ten years). The club doesn't have the kind of cash up front to pay for such repairs - so instead of just accepting the donation, they are on holding on until they can raise the money to make the repairs.

By the time this was discovered, we were into June (I was waiting to start training until the plane had been acquired). So I couldn't get the cheap option - but hey, I had saved up the money for this at full price already (being an RA with free rent does have its perks). But then, I started calculating the time cost as well as the financial cost.

You can't fly as a student out of Boston Logan (quite logical, really). The most common airport for student pilots is not accessible on the subway - you have to take a bus. The bus takes an hour to an hour and a half, and only runs at certain times. If I was to rent a car, it takes 45 minutes to drive there. Now, a typical flight lesson will be an hour in the air, but figure a half hour before and after for briefing with the instructor, getting set up, and properly securing the airplane after the flight. So two hours. Add in the two 45 minute commute legs, and we're at 3.5-4 hours I would need to rent a car for. ZipCars are minimum $7 an hour, so $28 per lesson, times 50-60 lessons (at an hour per lesson). Yeesh.

And if I take the bus, then it's more like 5 hours per lesson, depending on when the bus runs. Now the best way to do the training is to fly often, so you keep your skills fresh. So I'd ideally like to fly two or three times a week.

I found that I didn't have 10-15 extra hours per week. Not EVEN counting the significant prep time required the day before, in order to get the most out of the lesson (and you want to be efficient - refer back to $130 per hour...). And even if I could squeeze out that time, I'd have to be coordinating with the weather and the availability of the instructor - so try working a bus schedule or ZipCar rental around all THAT.

Yeesh again.

So reluctantly, I have decide to shelve the project. Have to know when to fold 'em, right? I'm hoping to come back around to this one, though - maybe someday when I have the right combination of money, time, and proximity to an airport. I'm hanging on to my little pilot kit, to remind me I'm not giving up yet.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lightning Empiricism

My advisor is a huge, huge fan of "lightning empiricism." It's a term I haven't heard anywhere else, and my advisor says he got it from HIS advisor. Basically, it's a more-scientific-sounding way of saying, "go try it and see." Physically parking your butt at a lab bench and trying something, usually as simply and easily as you can, has huge benefits. Often you'll find out something you never would have anticipated without getting your hands on it.

You can also think about it like this: When you apply the principle of "just try something simple" to doing analysis, you call it back-of-the-envelope calculations. When you apply the principle to doing experiments, you call it lightning empiricism.

The point is, sometimes it's not worth spending hours poring over theory and simulations, if there's something you can do to test the basic concept. If the basic, quick-and-dirty tests are successful, or teach you something by their failure, then you can move forward with that new knowledge. I really like that my advisor pushes the hands-on learning; a lot of professors I know rely much more heavily on the theory.

I have to share a story here, which you can skip if engineering isn't your field: For instance, I was having trouble with a basic op-amp circuit I had built that was not behaving correctly - it was supposed to double the input voltage, but it wasn't working over the whole range. I asked one of my friends about it, and he dove right into circuit calculations and Kirchoff's rules to see if we could figure out what to change. But when I asked my advisor, the first thing he said was, "Did you put an oscilloscope on it?" Well, no, I hadn't - I just used a multimeter, since it was a DC signal. So he wouldn't talk to me until I trotted back to lab, and took a look at the actual analog signal. Lo-and-behold, my cheap power supply was fluctuating. Well THAT would never come up in the theory.

Anyway, I've been doing this lightning empiricism stuff for my research all summer. I found the papers in literature that showed something really cool, and I've been trying to replicate or improve on the same technique. But I've tried LOTS of different parameters, and it's still not working. Step 1, apply ink to stamp. Step 2, stamp pattern onto substrate. Endless variations on those two steps, and I still haven't come up with something halfway decent, even though I think I'm doing everything exactly as I find in literature.

So this is where lightning empiricism reaches its limits. Simply throwing darts at the problem isn't working, and I don't have time to keep flailing around until I happen to hit on something that works. If I've tried everything I know to try, and I still don't understand what's going on - then that's exactly what I'm left with. I don't understand what's happening.

And that is where I have to go back to theory. Back-of-the-envelope is no longer good enough, I need to have a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts.

So I'm going back to the literature, learning more about the physical process of fluid transfer, surface-chemical interactions, and the work of adhesion. Simply dipping my toes into this world of literature has already maxed out my knowledge of chemistry, so it's going to be a mental stretch for me.

But let's face it, it wouldn't be much of a PhD if all I had was lightning empiricism - kind of the whole point is to have a deep understanding, right?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Keeping International Hours

So remember that entrepreneurship conference that I help organize? Two years ago it was in Iceland, and this year it was in Korea. Well I'm pleased to announce that next year, I'm one of the two lead organizers.

I've already been working hard setting the stage for next year's conference. It's all been behind-the-scenes so far, but now we're going public.

Tonight I was woken up at 1am by a cell phone call from my co-lead-organizer. Before I could even clear my throat (and gees... need to go pee, people...) I found myself on a three-way Skype call with our website designer, who is currently in Delhi. After working through some final details, in the middle of the night we launched an updated website for the 2012 conference. And at 3am, sent out an official press release announcing the location of next year's upcoming conference.

Some people brag about what they can do before lunch - I'll see that, and raise you what I can do before I even get up in the morning. :)

All I'm saying is, it's just a good thing I slept in PJ's tonight - not a forgone conclusion, given how hot it is these days...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Let's See What We've Got

I wrote recently about how my research has hit a bit of a snag - I am able to put ink on a stamp, but I'm not able to transfer the pattern of ink to a glass slide.

But what exactly is going wrong? I feel a bit dumb showing up to a weekly meeting, and just stammering "But... but... it's not working!?" I need to have more helpful information than that. WHAT is not working? Is some of the pattern transferring, but not all of it? Is the ink puddling on the slide? Is the ink not coming off the stamp at all? WHAT'S GOING ON?


I need to see what I've got. I need to apply eyeballs to the situation. So I spent an afternoon taking pictures of all the various ways my stamp is, well, not stamping.

First of all, what is it supposed to look like? Well, I'm trying to stamp a pattern of lines. A couple good lines would look like this:

Figure: Very simple. 50 um lines, spaced 100 um apart.

And what am I getting instead? Oh, lots of things. Sometimes when I peel the slide off the stamp, I can feel the slide stick to the stamp. And when I look at a "stuck" slide, you can see little pieces of stamp where they ripped off and stuck to the slide.

Figure: Bits of stamp. Stuck to slide. Very sad.

I think what is happening there, is that I didn't get the ink to coat the stamp very well. And the places where there was no ink, the stamp just bonded directly to the slide. Need ink, need ink...

Sometimes I can feel that when I press the stamp down onto the slide, I smudge it a little bit (apparently, my fingers are not calibrated down to microns...). And on the "smudged" slides, the lines look like this:

Looks pretty smudged, a fairly obvious conclusion. Most likely the ink was liquid, and beaded up into droplets when it shifted before it was dry.

I also get some funny areas where I see "clear" lines. It's supposed to be solid light-blue colored lines, but here you can just faintly see the outlines where the lines are supposed to be.

Let's zoom in, shall we?

Yep, looks pretty much like nothing is there. So what's going on? Turns out, if you color over those "clear" lines with Sharpie, it looks like SOMETHING is there.

Figure: Sharpie reveals all.

Huh. So when you paint over the slide with marker, it bleeds into lines - but it looks like there is nothing on the slide. The nothing must be something, right? Let's look at another Sharpied part of the slide.

Here we see a lot going on. We see the Sharpie bleeding into the clear lines, and then we see a couple solid lines that almost look like they are supposed to. And then we see these little wiggly things.

For the slides that I think should be "good results," (meaning no smudging, I didn't feel it stick, nothing else obvious went wrong), most of the slide is filled with these wiggly lines.

Wiggles, wiggles. You wouldn't know this unless I told you (which I am now doing), but those lines are way thinner than they are supposed to be. About 10 microns wide, instead of 50 microns wide.

And they are everywhere! Let's zoom in:

Hmm. Hard to focus.

In fact, the reason it's hard to focus is because those little wiggles are very tall. 10 microns tall, instead of a thin layer of 80 nanometers.

And what is this? Now this wiggles aren't even in lines anymore!

Wait - wait - let's think about this. Instead of flat, wide, thin lines in a logical order, we are getting tall, skinny, wiggly things that move around.

Aha! I think I know! The ink has become a FILM, instead of a LIQUID, and it's rolling into strings. We're making very tiny ropes! Ropes that then detach and wiggle around the slide. And in fact, we can catch one in the process of rolling:

Yep, yep. My nice pattern of liquid ink drops is not that at all. I'm getting film transfer, and the film is curling up under induced stresses. I'm making strings!

Well THAT'S fun.

All of the literature background research on transfer mechanisms that I did was involved with liquid transfer. But now that I know it's a film, that's a whole different ballgame.

Back to the drawing board...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cooking Day

Today was dedicated to cooking, and absolutely no research. I have recently discovered, and I love it. LOVE it. It's a recipe site that suggests recipes for you, based on what you have in your kitchen already, what you are in the mood for, and taking into account the foods you don't like.


There are other sites that do this, and I've tried them before. But they all have fatal flaws - most commonly, the website is painful to list out all the ingredients you already own, and laborious to delete ingredients once you've used them up. And if not that, then the recipes suggested I don't like. For instance - I will never make anything that requires a box brownie mix. Or marshmallow fluff. That's just heresay. And I also don't do casseroles that call for hot dogs or cream-of-anything soup. And on the other extreme, I'm also not going to cook with caviar, liver, duck, or anything on the half-shell. And if it requires smoking a tomato? Not gonna happen. And even if the website manages both of those things, the interface is just ugly.

But gojee? None of those things. Simple, gorgeous, and serves up recipes that I can't wait to make. I die.

Today I was on a tear to use up all the produce in my fridge that is nearing its shelf life - I hate to have good food go bad! So I made:

Nectarine and Fennel Salad
Mustard-Maple Chicken with Quinoa-Cucumber Salad
Chicken Tagine with Fennel, Preserved Lemons, and Green Olives
 - modified, because I only have fresh lemons, and I'm not even sure what a preserved lemon is...
Bread Pudding
 - modified by adding currants, walnuts, and nutmeg

My kitchen smelled wonderful all day. And I have leftovers a-plenty!

Bring on the week. I don't know about research, but I've got the lunches DOWN.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Saudi Arabian High school program

My university has a brand-new partnership with a university in Saudi Arabia, and part of the agreement is that there will be outreach to girls and women in Saudi Arabia (including specifying a certain amount of women be enrolled in the joint exchange student program). As another outreach effort, a two week summer camp was designed for high school girls. So ten Saudi high schoolers interested in math and science are currently here in Boston, learning about engineering.

World's Best School already hosts a LOT of summer camps. (See: hordes of small bodies clogging up the student center at lunch these days...). And in particular, it hosts a well-established high school girl's summer technology program, which runs for four weeks. I was involved in helping plan the two week program for the Saudi girls, and we collaborated with the existing four week program managers to draw from their experience (and class materials!). As additional collaboration, the Saudi girls will join the existing program for the final capstone project. The final capstone project requires materials and lab space for building things, and it's easier logistically to just add ten girls and supplies to an established program with sixty girls, then to come up with something from scratch. Especially since the timing overlaps so well, and this is the first year we've tried this program for the Saudi girls.

We also tried to include some extra-curricular items for the girls. There are a couple field trips to local engineering and technology companies. There's a trip to the beach for the annual national sand-castle building competition (we checked to make sure the beach was appropriate, and it was - although obviously they will not be wearing bikinis..), and a shopping trip.

And last night, there was a social event that I was in charge of. For all of these girls, this is the first time they have been in America, and for some of them, the first time being exposed to Western culture in general. Their high school teachers are women (as are all the teachers in this two-week program, by the way), but they may never have had a chance to meet female role models in the engineering/science fields.

So I invited four other women grad students that I know (all from varying majors), and we had dinner and dessert with the high school girls. It was just an informal thing (I had some puzzles/games to break the ice if necessary), and the purpose was basically to prove that people like me and my friends exist. There are, indeed, women who make a career out of math and science. I thought about inviting undergrad women, but they are mostly gone for the summer, and I thought about inviting a couple of the female faculty, but their schedules are more difficult, and I thought grad students were a little younger and more relatable anyway.

So last evening, I got to be privy to a pretty amazing thing. I have always felt that World's Best School is an incredibly humbling place - no matter how smart I think I am, there is always somebody smarter. No matter how organized, how creative, how disciplined I am - always, there is someone further than I on the spectrum. For a lot of incoming students here, knowing you aren't the best is a jarring realization that can completely kneecap their personal identity. I've tried to look at it as inspiring, but mostly it's just humbling.

But humble comes in many forms. As well as academic and intellectual humility, it is also humbling to meet people like these girls - people who have come from families, circumstances, even entire cultures that set up roadblocks in their way. I've always had support and encouragement, mentors and role models along the way, and I am very blessed to be where I am today. To witness girls who have not had the chances and opportunities I have, and yet have the determined spirit to overcome obstacles and succeed in following their passions - that, dear readers, is humbling.

I was instructed to set up that event for the purpose of inspiring these high school girls and showing them what's possible - but in the end, it had the result of inspiring ME. If these girls are here, possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Well bugger, it's not working

I'm hard at work on my PhD at the moment, trying my best to graduate by next June. I had a committee meeting in February, and then with the committee's approval I spent the spring semester building a machine that I would use to accomplish the research. I finished the machine, and this summer I've been trying to - well, get some results. I had a schedule for this summer, that ended with me having some experimental results and a second committee meeting this August. (The results, of course, being popularly understood as a good thing to have for the meeting.)

But here's the thing - it's not working. I've tried a lot of combinations of parameters, materials, and processes, and I can't get the basic process of my research to work. Here is the basic process:

Step 1: Apply ink to stamp
Step 2: Stamp onto a glass slide

Not hard, right? Really, can't be that bad.

Well it took me a good three weeks to get the "apply ink to stamp" step to work. Turns out you have to have a stamp of the correct material, you have to do some pre-treatment to the surface of the stamp with the correct parameters, you have to apply the ink in the correct manner, and you have to use ink with the correct properties.

Ack. Not trivial.

But now it works, Step 1. Step 1 and me are good buddies. I can do Step 1 all day long.

But Step 2? Step 2 is not cooperating.

I tried using my machine to do the stamping, and it wasn't working. I thought, fine, I'll go back to doing stamping by hand. But that wasn't really working either. I could sort-of get it to work under some conditions, and one day I even got enough to transfer to take a picture of under the microscope. Finally! I thought, I have proof that I can transfer the ink from the stamp to the slide!

But it's not repeatable, and I have no idea why it worked that day and now I can't get any good results. A tease, I tell you, a tease...

Flat stamp? Patterned stamp? Different patterned stamp? Different temperatures? Different methods of stamping? Different ink? Different pressures? Click my heels three times and say "there's no place like home"? Tried all those, and nada.

And all the while, that schedule is glaring at me. I know that research does hit obstacles, but I always expected I would be able to figure a way around them - I always have so far. But if I don't get that committee meeting in August, one of my committee members goes away on sabbatical for a whole year. So this July has really been crunch time for me getting something worth showing.

Well, July is flying away, and I'm crunched alright. But I don't feel like I have anything to show for it, and I'm nearly out of ideas on what else to try.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Last week, my hand mixer broke. The plastic body cracked all the way around, and I thought maybe I could still make it work - but the crack caused the two beaters to be out of alignment. Since they were no longer concentric, "mixing" became more like, "using both hands to keep the vibrating mixer from flying apart."

So I started looking for replacements to my $12 Wal-Mart special. There is no Wal-Mart in Boston, however, so rather than travel arduously by bus to the suburbs where one can find a Target, I opted to poke around online. As I sat with pursed lips in front of my screen, I pondered: Well, let's see - I could always get another of the same one. OR, I could get this nice $20 one - but ooh! The $34 one has a retractable cord...

Well, ladies and gents, by the end of my research, I was nearly ready to place an order for a KitchenAid stand mixer.

That tends to happen in my family. The oft-told story goes that we renovated and doubled the size of our house, starting because my mother didn't like the living room curtains. And more recently, my family gutted the home office, beginning with the fact that the air conditioner didn't work in that room. Projects tend to escalate quickly!

Back to my project, Operation: Replace Mixer.

A KitchenAid, if you are not familiar, is a serious tool. Depending on the model you get, it's also a $300-$400 investment at retail price. But what my family has taught me (besides "projects escalate quickly") is that it is critical to have the right tool for the job. Actually, I suspect the two go hand in hand. Escalating projects is only a winning proposition if you are properly prepared for the expanded vision...

So is the KitchenAid a tool I need? I cook quite a bit, and use my mixer often. And man, the KitchenAid can do so much more than a little hand mixer... and the attachments! Endless opportunities. Good for hours of dreaming for someone like me, interested in both mechanical tools and cooking. 

And the best part? At Amazon, the color I wanted was on sale for $206. 

Figure: Ah, lovely...

Now let me be clear - the KitchenAid comes in many colors. Standard colors are available all the time, and then every so often they come out with specialty colors. Pioneer Woman even sold off a yellow flowered variety. 

I happen to think that pattern is terrible, but in my browsing I found there was yet a worse option. Pepto-Bismol, baby powder pink. Sheesh. 

Figure: Okay, I think it's actually for cancer, so it gets a pass for being a good cause.
And in fact, you can get a whole range of pink kitchen implements! 

I feel about pink kitchen tools about the same as I feel about pink construction tools. 
And that being, that if you can't handle the full-powered version of a tool, you shouldn't be playing with it. This applies to the "baby" versions of tools that come in pink, like the above drill, which is powered with all of 9.6 Volts. Don't hurt yourself, now...

To be fair, I did have a friend point out an excellent argument - that if you are a woman who can handle tools, there are legitimate, high-quality tools that come in pink. And there is one good reason to consider purchasing such a thing.

Figure: That's more like it. Comes with proper drill bits and 18V battery. Could be lithium ion, but still.
 And that being, your tools will not get stolen (and believe me, tools have a ridiculous tendency to walk off). My chemistry friends would say that tools have a high vapor pressure... think about it... think about it... okay, maybe bad joke. In any case - if you work on a construction site, none of the men would be caught dead with a pink drill. And even if someone DID swipe your tools, it would be immediately obvious, because who else would have a pink one? I mean, let's not kid ourselves and think more than one woman would probably be working on a construction site.

So I will grant you that argument. But in my kitchen, nothing is getting stolen. Therefore, no pink. I want my KitchenAid to blend in, be a beautiful component of my counter space. Like so:

Figure: Can you see it? Hiding over there by the oven?
So that black KitchenAid baby was in my cart, and I was so tempted. I left it there to think overnight (another lesson from family - never rush the thinking portion of a project...). And what I decided was this: 1) I haven't saved up the chunk of cash I need for such a purchase, and money is definitely one of the "proper tools" needed for a project. And 2) I have been getting along just fine with a hand mixer so far. And finally, 3) Does my kitchen look like this?

Figure: My DREAM kitchen looks like this, granted.
No, no it does not. I still have a tiny efficiency kitchen, and I feel like getting a KitchenAid is a life step. Kind of like getting the white picket fence and the dog. And honestly, I'm just not there yet. When I have a house - or shoot, even an apartment with a dishwasher - then I'll revisit this.

So for now, I deleted the KitchenAid from my cart.

Actually, that's not quite true - I "Saved for Later."

Because you better believe I'll be back for it. And in the meantime, I splurged for the $34 hand mixer with retractable cord, daggone it, because I'm at least ONE step up from the $12 model. :)

Engineer Blogs, July Update

Over at Engineer Blogs, I talk about how many ways there are to make mistakes in the machine shop. And, I discuss a few of the different kinds of belts there are, and the concept of crowned wheels (which, apparently, is a concept that neither Google nor Wikipedia can immediately help you find - and usually you can find almost any topic in the top three of one or the other).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Engineer Blogs, June Roundup

In June on Engineer Blogs, I've talked about how things like Gantt charts help to schedule your work. I've posed the question - how do you measure success as an engineer? And for the holiday weekend, it seems appropriate to wonder, how much do you socialize with your coworkers?