Monday, February 28, 2011

Flipping Switches in Life

This is a topic that has been on my mind over the past couple weeks - I'm sure I've written on a similar theme before, but I can't be bothered to dig through my archives to find it.

There are seasons in life, I feel. My mom has said the same thing, as have multiple friends over the years. I haven't lived very long, so I can't say that I've had all that many "seasons". But I have had a few major changes over the course of my life.

And I want to talk today about the feeling of the switch flipping. Feeling like a new season is beginning.

After high school, I went to community college. I remember distinctly the year that I realized, "man I am done with community college. This season in my life needs to end." Unfortunately I wasn't quite done, and I remember the tension that caused - wanting to move on, but just not there yet. And when I finally did move on to university, I remember coming home and driving past that community college campus. "Oh I am SO past that" was the thought that came to mind.

My family now teases me, by the way, whenever I become too uppity about something - "Oh, we know," they say, "you are SO PAST that!" It's a funny reminder for me not to forget the lessons I've learned, "past it" or not!

I remember the point I thought you know, I am too old to be sharing a room. I don't mind roommates in a suite or an apartment, but when I shut the door I want to be the only one there. That point came after only one year in the dorm with a roommate - didn't take long, it was a short season! Ever since then, I've had my own room. (Not my own bathroom, thanks to living in a dorm with undergrads, but I'll get there someday...).

And then during my senior year in college, I watched most of my friends move past the "homework and classes" season in life, and eagerly embrace the "career and family" season in life. I heard more times than I can count about how burnt out my friends were with school.

I didn't feel burnt out.

That season in my life hadn't ended yet, I didn't feel the switch flip.

And now I'm four years into grad school. :) Fancy that.

I remember at the end of two years in grad school, having finished my Master's degree and passed qualifying exams, that again I felt the season changing. It was time to step up my game, become a world-class researcher using all the skills I've gathered to tackle interesting problems. And goodness knows I'm now trying my best at that, though I'm always still learning.

I realized in grad school that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. And there came a point where I could have pursued that dream full time. But it wasn't time. That was not the season.

I feel like I'm currently in the midst of switching seasons. I've moved from being a middle-career grad student, to an end-stage grad student. I'm not taking classes. I've begun committee meetings. I am focused on a clear direction, and I have a target graduation date. And, all my friends are slowly leaving. Ever since last May, the senior grad students I know have been trickling away. All the memories have been sweet, and of course I'm meeting new more junior students, but the guard is changing. I'm in the oldest cohort in the office. I've been the most senior person in my lab for a while.

Every semester there is a "Registration Day" where all the students register for classes or research units at once. There is a brunch for all the students while they do this, and it turns into sort of a social event. My first year or two, I didn't know many people to say hi to. The second and third year, I knew more and more people, until I knew the majority of the people at Reg Day. Now at the most recent Reg Day, the number of people I know is going down again. I'm becoming that crusty old grad student who doesn't socialize with the newbies - ack!

It's a bit sad to say goodbye to an old season. I remember moving into the office, and being the newest person in my cubicle. Now, since the most recent defense, the turnover is complete and everybody in my cubicle is more junior than me. This past Friday the youngest person in my lab graduated with her Master's degree. My advisor had a going-away dinner for her, with all current students and a few lab alums coming out to catch up and congratulate her. I saw how the lab alums have now moved on, are starting families and careers in industry. And then Saturday night, all of the girls in the office had a girl's night to celebrate both my labmate, and another girl in the office who graduated and are leaving this week to start jobs.

It's bittersweet. It's a pleasure to get to know my officemates and labmates, and a pleasure to celebrate with them whenever anyone defends or graduates or gets a job. But it's sad to see them go, and realize that seasons in life change no matter what you do or how much you like the current season.

I feel like I'm finally becoming a grown-up, and maybe that scares me a bit. I have a handle on school, and I'm starting for the first time to look beyond school to the rest of my life. Yikes.

The switch is flipping my friends, I can feel it. I am not yet "SO past that," but I can see the light at the end of this season. Life moves on, always an adventure.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Defense of UnCool Self-Expression

A bit of a rant, which you may agree or disagree with at your pleasure -

One of the neatest things about being in school - whether undergraduate or graduate - is the vast variety of people you come into contact with. My perception, although it may be skewed, is that once you get into the working world your pool of friends becomes much harder to expand. If you spend all day at work, with the same set of people, you have to go outside work to find new friends. Sometimes you can do it with hobbies, but you only have so many hours left outside work. You can also find people in church or religious activities, or maybe your neighbors.

But nothing compares to the format of school - every semester you are thrown into four or five new classes with a new set of people to get to know. People move in and out of the dorms, putting you in contact with people not in your major. And you have endless choices of extracurricular activities - student clubs, athletics, service organizations, and whatever else you can imagine, each an additional opportunity to find people to meet and mingle with. For at least four years - maybe eight or ten if you go to grad school - you are practically a people-meeting MACHINE. Even in engineering. I can only imagine the effect is magnified in areas dependent on networking - business kids, anyone? I sometimes think that's the ONLY reason they go to school. :)

Suffice it to say I have been honored over the years to meet unique people of all personalities and persuasions. I have been stretched and challenged in my moral beliefs, my political beliefs, and in my technical and business acumen. I have made friends that I cherish that I never would have met otherwise.

I say all that to preface this story: Last week I found myself in the company of a new set of people. A friend invited me along to hang out one evening, and I met all of his friends. I was enjoying myself, trying to be sociable. It's a stretch, but I can manage it once in a while.... :)

And then the conversation turned to self-expression.

Ah, what an excellent topic!

The conversation began when one girl proudly showed off her new tattoo, and we began talking about the design of tattoos and how they can be used as self-expression. I was skeptical, because the tattoo was a tribal rose above her butt-crack, and I'm not sure how original that is or what exactly she was trying to express. But hey, I'll go along with it. I've seen some gorgeous tattoos, and they can have a lot of meaning for people.

And then we moved on to piercings. Let me mention that most of the people in this group had piercings, tattoos, colored hair. Enthusiastically, they all jumped in - "Yeah, it's so weird how piercings are still not socially acceptable." "People are, like, totally intolerant." "I'm just modifying my own body, what's the big deal?" And, from the guy with a ring through his nose, "So hard to be taken seriously."

Again, I have no problem with people with piercings. My problem was that I never heard any one of them say something like, "I got my piercing because I really like the way it looks." Or, "My hair is pink because pink makes me happy." Or, "I got my tattoo in honor of my battle with cancer." None of them were making their "self-expression" choices because of some part of THEMSELVES that they were trying to EXPRESS, but because of the acceptance of their friends, or the perceived fit in the culture they identified with. They were making their choices simply to be anti-normal. And if all you are is anti-everybody-else, perhaps that's not particularly unique either...

And sadly, what could have been a really interesting discussion quickly took an odd turn. This group continued on to begin bashing particular kinds of people - Christians, white-collar business people, conservative people - for not being self-expressive enough. Wait, what? Is it really that they aren't self-expressive, or that you don't like what they are expressing?

And I realized suddenly that what these people thought was that anyone who didn't look like THEM - the classic "alternative" look, which I'll cynically call "Hot Topic chic" - was suppressing their self-expression. That if you didn't look like them, you must not be celebrating your individual self, and you had succumbed to popular mainstream culture.

And thus, the hypocrisy of tolerance. Only tolerant of people like yourself. Only unique if you look like the other unique people look.

I was sitting there, not sure I had anything much to add to the conversation, and I contemplated what I looked like to these people. I have no tattoos, and a very safe two piercings in my ears. Brown hair, shoulder length, ponytail, glasses, no makeup. A Hanes T-shirt, denim skirt, orange tights, and sneakers. I am absolutely not bucking The Man. I do not support any causes on Facebook, I do not sneer righteously at political topics I disagree with.

You know who really doesn't care about "mainstream" culture? The Asian girl on my floor who just won an award for pistol shooting. The kid in my class who has a needle and thread carefully stashed in his baseball cap, because it may be useful to him. The kid who wears a cape, because HE thinks it's cool. The girl who wears a tophat and sleeps whenever she feels like it. They know who they are, and what's important to them, and they are each truly unique.

You know how I express myself?

By how I carry myself. By my speech. By my actions. By my treatment of my friends and colleagues. By the care and pride I take in my home and my work. I express myself every stinkin' day through who I am.

I have no need to make myself "alternative." I don't feel the need to be meta and ironically support counterculture. I ride a bike because it is convenient, not because it's the eco-conscious image I want to portray.

I am a female mechanical engineer, raised by homeschooling instead of public school, five years younger than everyone else, who can drive a backhoe, loves both cooking and construction, and chooses to live with undergrads so she can help mentor them. Don't you dare tell me that you are alternative and I am not. Just because I don't express myself the way you do, don't wear spikes or J.Crew or identify with any specific culture group, does not negate my own uniqueness or that fact that I AM indeed self-expressive. In fact, don't you think that precisely NOT having a group to identify with means that you are unique? Even, dare say, a true outlier?

The reason you don't see my self-expression is because I don't whack you on the head with it. I don't need to spend my day crafting the image I portray to the world at large. I don't need to modify my body through tattoos or piercings or hooks in my nose, because I'm not here to prove myself to anyone. I have no need to SHOCK people to get them to notice me, or to ensure that I'm "thinking outside the box" or "swimming against the stream" or whatever other cliche you care to insert. I just figure out what it is that I like - ME, not what culture dictates, or what counter-culture dictates - and what I WANT, then I DO it.

And I am willing to pound my stake in the sand and say that being comfortable with who I am, being proud of my accomplishments because I earned them, being secure in my personal self-worth without worrying about the image I portray, and following my dreams because they are MY dreams - THAT, my friends, is alternative. THAT is self-expression.

And my orange tights may be self-expression too. I do take a lot of flak from my girls about those orange tights not being cool. :)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking the Admin to Lunch

My research group recently got a new administrative assistant, and while we miss the old admin, it's sure much better now than the no-admin situation we had going for a few months. This is now the third admin that has been here during my years as a grad student - which makes me feel either older, or high maintenance! Truly I don't know why the turnover has been quite so high... I swear I'm nice to the admins...

There's been some discussion at Candid Engineer and at Dr. Isis's blog recently on treating the staff well, and I thought it's an appropriate time to mention a nice tradition in my lab.

When the last admin joined our group a couple years ago, I thought it would be a welcoming gesture to organize a lunch outing for her with the students. I'm sure the professors welcomed her as well, but I hoped it would be helpful for her to meet and say hi to all the students that she would have to be fielding requests from. The idea was well received, and the lunch went well. (We paid for her, of course, even engineering grad students can pick up on some etiquette...)

When this most recent admin joined the group, I did the same thing. First I conferred with all the students who would be working with her to see what days would be good for lunch, and not surprisingly the answer was "pretty much any day." Man I love grad school! Then I went to say hi to the new admin, introduced myself and made small talk, and offered that the students would love to take her out to lunch if she had a free day.

The lunch again went very well, and we discovered that actually she is not only a secretary, but a technical writing editor. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, if we are especially nice to her, she might critique our papers for publication? Worth a shot in the future! :) I feel like the outing was a success (even if six people did pay with credit cards - really people? You don't carry $12 cash?), and I think it makes a nice tradition.

In business-speak, this is "on-boarding." Leave it to the business folks to make up a term and a procedure for common sense... Actually it's popular here to do the same thing when an advisor gets a new student - the current students of that advisor will take the new one out for coffee (or a beer, depending on the lab group). Gossip, small talk, and there you have it. It's a bonding thing, and it helps people become more comfortable and feel like valued parts of the group.

Between the welcome lunches and the bread and vanilla I make for the staff, I think the moral is that my way of being nice to people is to feed them... there are worse ways to show appreciation, I think!

Do you do anything to "on-board" new staff, or members of the lab group?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Content for PhD Committee Meeting #1: Part II

There is another discussion point I wanted to raise about what the content should be in your first committee meeting, to follow up on my previous post.

What should you NOT include?

In particular, how much experimental data or initial results should you show or not show?

There are two scenarios here: either you don't have any initial results, or you do. Let's take a look:

No initial results: After all, it is just a proposal, you aren't required to have any data. But is this a good thing? SHOULD you have some initial results? I think it's prudent to at least show that your idea is feasible. But is it enough to just point to literature that says it's feasible? Or do you have to have tested the theory yourself?

Do have initial results: If you have done some experiments already, is there any case in which you should you hold them back? I know of one case in particular where a student, now graduated from my office, had nearly his whole thesis done before he had any committee meetings at all. So in order to - I don't know - graduate quickly? or follow protocol? whatever the reason, he intentionally held back results. In his first committee meeting, he proposed what he was going to do. Second committee meeting, which followed fairly quickly after the first, he presented half of the results he already had. (I'm sure he was crossing his fingers, as he was gambling pretty heavily that the committee would not recommend he change direction...) And then, looky there, he had a third committee meeting and presented his final results.

I don't think that level of withholding is ethical, to me that borders on misleading. I think the situation could have been mitigated if he (or his advisor) didn't let him get so far before having a committee meeting. But I can see how you may have results that you don't show, or relegate to the "Backup" section and only pull out if there are questions. For instance, if you have a lot of data on things that DIDN'T work, you may want to mention that you tried, but not go through the details.

In my case, I have just a bare few experimental results. I didn't show them in my committee meeting, I put them in the back of the presentation, and we didn't end up getting to them. I did this for three reasons: one, they are not a significant amount of work, so I don't feel like I'm hiding progress. Two, I think I demonstrated feasibility of my proposed idea without needing further proof. Third, my plan is to have my second committee meeting fairly quickly (August) because one professor is leaving on sabbatical. Because I am working on an aggressive schedule, with a hard deadline, I don't mind having a few things already in my back pocket. Makes less work and less stress for me if I don't make as much progress as I anticipate by August.

But is that bordering on unethical as well? Is there any case where you should NOT include information in your committee meeting?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guest Posting at Engineer Blogs

Happy Monday, folks!

Today I'm guest blogging over at Engineer Blogs - I encourage you to go check it out. I'm honored to join a cast of awesome bloggers creating a community for us engineers!

If you've read the post and headed back - the same question applies to you. Where do you do your tinkering?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Content for PhD Committee Meeting #1

I am busily putting together slides for Friday's committee meeting #1. Can't quite write the whole thesis before any committee meetings, I suppose... :)

So what content is supposed to be in the slides for the meeting?

I know, generally, that the point is to propose (and defend, to some extent) what you want to do for your PhD project. But when I got down to the details, I realized that there are a few more conventions than that. So here's my outline:

Title Page: includes my working thesis title, the committee meeting number (a big 'ol FIRST ONE for me), who my advisor is, and what lab I work in

About Me: this I was told to include by older students, but I wouldn't have thought of it otherwise. You put down where you did your undergrad, Master's, and when you passed quals. A list of papers and conference presentations, and what your post-PhD plans are. I actually didn't put down my post-PhD plans, as I plan to get out of academia...

Problem: The biggest complaint I hear about seminars is that the speaker doesn't tell you the general overview up front. All it takes is a couple sentences: "I've decided that my project is going to be to build a machine to manufacture phasers out of unobtainium." Then people don't have to wait through ten slides to get to the point.

Purpose/Importance/Impact: I've taken a class from my second committee member, and he always drilled into us that in any presentation, you must begin with "PII." Purpose of the project - what you plan to get out of it. Importance - why anyone would care. Impact - what are the practical applications. I made sure to include this, if only to make that second committee member happy!

Why I Chose You: I put in one slide on why I chose my advisors - what expertise I hope they can contribute and how they fit into the project.

Why You Chose The Project: I said that I wanted to manufacture phasers out of unobtanium - but why not manufacture transporters? Or why not make phasers powered by melange? You can't do everything in your PhD, you have to narrow down the focus. But there has to be some thought behind the narrowing - how you analyzed the possibilities, and the justification behind your choices.

Previous Work: So has anyone else tried to make phasers out of unobtanium? How did that go? If not, what HAS unobtanium been used for? Have phasers been made from aluminum before?

Your Planned Approach: How do I plan to tackle the project? Build a mini-phaser first? Obtain the unobtainium? What issues do I think may arise? Any back of the envelope calculations I may have tried to help guide me?

Timeline: A Gantt chart of my project, including upcoming committee meetings, and most importantly - target graduation date!

Proposed Classes: the classes I've taken so far, divided into major and minor. This is the committee's chance to speak up if they think anything is missing...

Numbered Slides: Professors want to know whether they are sitting though 75 slides, or 20, and are we halfway done or just beginning? So I put the numbers on the slides - #/total. All in all, I ended up with 31 slides, which I think is a reasonable amount for an hour presentation + discussion.

So does this sound about right? Did I miss anything? Anything unecessary?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I've Been Down This Road Before

When I wrote my Master's thesis, I had the worst time writing Chapter 1 - Intro and Background. I hated it. HATED it.

It took forever. As far as I could tell, there were two ways to go about things. These two ways are the same when applied to writing the Intro section of a journal paper, too, not just a thesis.

First method

Write one sentence - "Widget A has cool properties 1, 2, and 3" - and then go find the paper that supports that. You look up the paper, print it out, read it (or at least skim, ahem) and file it away. Add the reference to the end of that sentence, then on to the next sentence. Rinse and repeat for an entire chapter. And if you needed to write a sentence like, "Many researchers have tried Process X," then that would be a good hour of finding all the papers to cite for those many researchers. And if you needed to say, "Research in this area has been going on since 1986," then you might as well just throw your hands up and dedicate the afternoon to finding the supporting papers.

Second method

Run a library/journal search for all papers relating to Widget A. Usually get search results in the thousands. Read all papers and try to determine the relevant ones. Then sit down to write your Intro section, citing the appropriate papers as you go. When you get to the end, check to make sure you have cited everything relevant and didn't miss any papers. Of course, I usually have forgotten a lot, because my brain doesn't hold details very well.

Either way I try it, writing the intro section is painful for me. But what made it especially painful for my Master's, I felt, was that I did most of my background and lit searches the first semester I was in grad school. And then I was writing the thesis a year and a half later. I can't even remember what I learned last WEEK (my saving grace is looking at old weekly PowerPoint update slides for reference).

Now I'm embarking upon the PhD, and I have my first committee meeting coming up on Friday. All you really have to present at the first meeting is what you PLAN to do for the PhD - that's why it's a proposal, after all. But in order to justify why I want to do what I'm proposing, I need to know the current state of the art in literature.

And learning about the current state of the art is what I've been doing for the past month of two anyway, while I was writing/updating my proposal document. I've even got all my papers categorized and fully searchable!

So now I come to my point for today: I feel like I've been down this road before. And heaven help me, I'm going to do better this time around.

So I started a document titled "Miss Outlier PhD Thesis." And I am going to add to that document AS I GO, gosh darn it. The intro chapter won't change much between now and when I graduate (at least I hope!), so why not write it now?

The past day or two I've spent tossing all my current knowledge into a growing outline of my thesis. Even if I don't have the info I need, I go ahead and create chapters and subsections that I can fill in later. And even if it's only bulletpoints, I put everything down anyway. It's much easier to expand a bulleted list than to come up with content from scratch.

When I got home from work today, I exported all of what I have so far to a .pdf, in the proper thesis format. Now the formatting means the first 11 pages are nothing - just title/table of contents/table of figures, etc. And the last 5 pages are nothing - just a list of references. And I have a LOT of pictures that take up a lot of room, and probably won't be in the final thesis. And bullet point lists take up a lot of room.

But still.

I have 86 pages.

Man, defining the problem really is half the battle, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Respect the Hoodie

Most people, and particularly nerds, and definitely me, have an environment that is particularly conducive to being productive. It's important to have things arranged properly around me, so that my mind isn't worried about anything else but the task at hand. I would like to direct your attention to the following passage, which conveys the concept beautifully:
What is your nerd’s hoodie? I write better when I’m wearing a hoodie. There’s something warm and cave-like about having my head surrounded — it gives me permission to ignore the world. Over time, those around me know that interrupting hoodie-writing is a capital offense. They know when I reach to pull the hoodie over my head that I’ve successfully discarded all distractions on the Planet Earth and am currently communing with the pure essence of whatever I’m working on.

It’s irrational and it’s delicious.

Your nerd has a hoodie. It’s a visual cue to stay away as they chase their Highs and your job is both identification and enforcement. I don’t know your nerds, so I don’t know what you’ll discover, but I am confident that these hoodie-like obsessions will often make no sense to you - even if you ask. Yes, there will always Mountain Dew nearby. Of course, we will never be without square pink Post-its.
h/t Rands in Repose

For me, I have to have the following things in place to really get in a groove:

1) Desk clean and tidy
2) Dual monitors up and running all the applications I will need
3) Headphones in, Pandora or Grooveshark playing
4) Shoes off
5) Legs crossed up on the chair
6) In the morning, coffee at hand. In the afternoon - water or sometimes a diet soda.

In that manner I can knock out three hours of work, and only look up because I have to take a bathroom break. (See: coffee or soda at hand.) These past couple days, I've been spending a good amount of hours in the groove. It feels good, like I'm really making some progress. And if people interrupt me while I working, it really irritates me. This morning I snapped at a coworker - then immediately apologized, of course. But he said - "Wow! I finally found how to make you irritated! I didn't think it was possible..."

Yeah, man, you've got to respect the hoodie... :)

What environment do you need to help you focus?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Feynman Approach to Problem Solving

Richard Fenyman is the man. 

Edit: Whoops! Feynman. Darn dyslexia... :) Although I kind of like the sound of Feny-man.

This made me laugh today, not least because it hits close to home. I KNOW people like this. One of the myriad reasons World's Best School is a humbling place is because there are people here who operate like this on a daily basis. Sadly, not me.

May all your problems be solvable with the Feynman approach this week!

Friday, February 11, 2011


I was homeschooled from first grade all the way through high school, so I wasn't part of a high school class year. I went to community college next, and there aren't really defined class years in that situation either. It wasn't until I transfered from community college to a university that I really had a set of friends progressing through school WITH me. A cohort, if you will.

It was in university that I first realized how valuable it is to actually have peers. Growing up, most of my friends were either older or younger than me - I was used to interacting with adults and children, and people my own age tended to confuse me. (Or, you know, it was just the fact that I'm an ENGINEER... not known for socializing well...) But if you have a set of people going through the same things with you, you can commiserate, and compare notes, and provide encouragement, and celebrate accomplishments together.

In fact, the best situation is probably where you have a mix to interact with - a cohort of peers, plus some older mentors, and some newer that are learning from you.

Hey wait a minute - that sounds a lot like grad school!

I wanted to address today the "cohort" part of that ideal grad school mix. In my office with about 20 students in it, three of us are at the same point in our PhDs. We are also the three most senior students in the office... must mean I'm getting old! Of course I also have friends at the same point in their PhD in other labs, but I am closest with my friends in my office.

So myself and two other guys are all aiming to graduate about the same time - June 2012, fingers crossed and lab gremlins willing. I passed qualifying exams first (because I somewhat stupidly decided to take qualifying exams the same semester I graduated with my Master's degree). The second guy passed quals the semester after me, doing things the normal-speed way. The third guy passed quals the next semester after that, but the reason he was slower was because he came in with a Master's degree from another university, and it takes a little longer to come up to speed in that case.

But now we're all about on the same page. We all started writing the PhD proposal about the same time. I finished mine a few weeks ago, and the other two are putting the final touches on theirs. I have my committee together, and I have scheduled a meeting for Friday the 18th. The other two can shop around their proposal and get a committee together as soon as they finish writing, and have a meeting as soon after that as they can schedule one. But I suspect that the other two may be a month or so behind me in getting a meeting.

So here's the thing about having a cohort of peers - you compare yourself to them. Sometimes I think I'm going really slow through the PhD process (I started writing the proposal a YEAR ago, for crying out loud, and I passed quals waaaaaay back in May 2009). I mean, what have I done in the past year? Then I waffle and think, man, I am doing pretty darn well. I did quals first, finished my proposal first, got a committee first, and now will have a meeting first. Score!

The reality is that I land (as is usually the case) somewhere in the middle. There is a huge standard deviation in the PhD experience, and I think overall I'm doing just about right. The important thing is that I am confident that I can progress forward from here with a clear goal in sight.

Then the question becomes - how do you find a balance between competition and companionship? On one hand, it's good to compare yourself to your peers to make sure you are keeping on track (motivation, anyone?). And competition is healthy when it keeps you on your toes and constantly pushing the cutting edge. But it's NOT healthy to be arrogant about your success. And it's not good to get a case of Imposter Syndrome and think that maybe you aren't good enough when in reality, well, you are.

I am going to try to enjoy having a cohort to learn and grow with during my PhD, and try to avoid the pitfalls on either side. For instance, if it takes me longer than June 2012 to graduate, I will be irritated but not heartbroken. On the other hand, I am afraid the the other two students would be upset if I graduate significantly before they do. But I can't base my life on what other people think, so I'm just going to proceed with my life as best I can - cohort or not! I'm an outlier, anyway, right? :)

Do you have coworkers, or fellow students, or professors on the same track that you relate to and commiserate with?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

South of the Border Cooking Class

Figure: Miss Outlier, Chef

This is actually a woefully old post, but one of the nice things about establishing a routine is that I can be productive. So I'm getting around to posting things I've always meant to share! Oh wait - productive was supposed to apply to RESEARCH? Details, details...

In February 2010 (gulp - where did the time go?) I took a class from the Cambridge Culinary School of the Arts. The cooking school offers classes on the weekends to the public. Some are series - baking, or international cooking, or just the basics - and some are single day courses. I signed up for a one afternoon class, called South of the Border Cooking. And the best part? Getting to use the professional kitchen! Drooling, drooling...

Figure: We're wearing aprons. Must be official.
Figure: The teaching podium, where the instructor demonstrated techniques.

Look at that cool mirror above the instructor's table - it shows you the bird's eye view, so you can see the ingredients and watch what the hands are doing!

The class had ten people, and the instructor lead us through making an authentic Mexican meal. Or at least I'm told it's authentic, how would I know... The students were split between the dishes (or the dishes between the students?), so one or two people would work on each recipe.

Figure: Other students intent on preparing their dishes.

The recipes we prepared were the following (and yay, I got to take home all the recipes!):

Marinated and Grilled Shrimp with a Chipotle Pepper Sauce
Chicken Mole
Grilled Flank Steak with Ancho Chili Cream Sauce
Green Rice
Chicken Fajitas
Fresh Tomato Salsa
Salsa Verde
Refried Beans
Grilled Pork Tenderloin with a Peach and Macadamia Nut Salsa
Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

Does that not just make your mouth water? YUM! I was assigned the chocolate cake (no need to twist my arm on that one, I assure you).

Figure: Measuring out Mexican chocolate for my dessert

It was neat to hear the other students in class chattering away with their teammates. These two ladies in particular kept the class lively!

Figure: Ladies making roasted peppers.

 I claimed a saucepan and spot at the stove, to make the chocolate topping sauce.

Figure: That's heavy cream. Oh yes.

Because the kitchen was all open, I could peek over shoulders and watch the other dishes come together.

Figure: Preparations for mole chicken.
Figure: Chicken being mole-d.

I felt like a fancy chef on a TV show - I got to have fun with the presentation (or, "plating") as well as actually making the dessert.

Figure: Plates for the chocolate cakes, dusted with cocoa powder.

 At this point, the ladies making the shrimp appetizers finished the dish, so we all got to take a mid-class break and sample our efforts!

Figure: Shrimp, completed quickly, as appetizers are meant to be - and eaten quickly, as good food is meant to be!

After our break, I continued on and finished making my little cakes in individual ramekins.

Figure: Miss Outlier at work!

The kitchen smelled so good, it was ridiculous.

Figure: Grilled Flank Steak
Figure: Setting up the buffet. You can see green rice, flank steak, refried beans, and chicken mole.
Figure: Our instructor (see the hat? nobody else got a hat).
Figure: Meat! Pork and chicken.

When everything was ready and set out on the buffet, the whole class got to enjoy the meal.

Figure: Sitting down together.
One of the couples taking the class had brought Mexican beer to pair with the meal, and they generously shared with the class. Seemed only appropriate!

Figure: South of the Border, baby.

Let's get a close up of that, shall we?

Figure: Oh, life is good.

It's really cool how food brings people together. At the beginning of the day, none of us knew each other. At the end of the afternoon, we were laughing and joking and passing the salsa.

FIgure: Because really, who doesn't like food?

I ducked out of dinner a bit early to put the finishing touches on dessert. And because one of the students had a birthday, the instructor even provided a little candle for one of the cakelets. How cute!

Figure: Looks downright professional, if I do say so myself.
 The finished dessert:

Figure: Basically a chocolate lava cake made with Mexican chocolate, topped with a fudge sauce and whipped cream.

The day was a success - I learned a lot, ate good food, and got to indulge my inner Julia Child! Maybe someday I'll take another class... the baking series looks particularly tempting...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Data Wrangler

Good gracious, is this not straight up magic for data analysis?

Wrangler Demo Video from Stanford Visualization Group on Vimeo.

This would have made my life SO much easier when analyzing data for my Master's thesis...

Found c/o MetaFilter.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


In undergrad, I had roommates that used to do Pilates. They convinced me to go with them to a Pilates class exactly twice, and I found it to be thinly veiled torture. I wasn't strong enough or flexible enough to do any of the moves properly, so it primarily consisted of me stumbling through the class trying to imitate the teacher.

My roommates told me it was "relaxing and invigorating." I found it anything but. I much preferred to go out to the workshop and sand on the canoe I was building. Sanding, now THAT is a therapeutic activity.

But two different friends of mine have been raving to me about the yoga classes they are taking. There is a highly-rated yoga studio only a fifteen minute walk from where I live (and, only ten minutes from my office). And I know that yoga is supposed to be really good for you.

So, with some trepidation, this January I started going to some yoga classes with my friends, about one a week. I didn't know what to expect for my first class, but to my surprise it was phenomenal. The teacher was excellent (at least I thought so, though what do I know?), and showed both challenging poses and modified versions for beginners like me. There were all levels of students in the class, and everyone could participate as best as they were able.

Something about the class just really resonated with me - at the end of class, I felt like I had stretched muscles that had sat dormant for a long time, and at the same time challenged the strength of my body. Like I had connected my mind and body and breathing. I don't subscribe to the spiritual aspect of yoga, but calming your mind, noticing how you are feeling internally, and providing your body what it needs is really powerful.

The yoga studio I've been going to is almost exclusively a "hot yoga" studio, where the classes are taught at 95-100 F. I had been making my friend go with me to the unheated classes, because I wanted to get used to the yoga part first before I added the heated part. But it turns out that "unheated" just means they turn off the heater for the class, but it's still pretty hot because the previous class was heated, and if you know any heat transfer principles you realize it doesn't cool down instantly!

This Sunday I bit the bullet, and my friend and I went to a heated class. I got over the fact that yes, I was going to be dripping sweat - I just brought a towel, and figured it's okay because the rest of the class is sweating too. Turns out the heat helps with the stretching, and forces you to really relax and breathe if you want to be able to balance and hold difficult poses. In short, I loved it!

Indeed, I might even say it was "relaxing and invigorating"!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Full Time Researcher

This is the first semester I haven't had any classes. Ever. Since I was five. No, wait - four. (I went to preschool). That's a lot of years I've spent taking classes, and now I don't have any except Ground School, which I'm taking for fun.

It's an odd, surreal feeling.

On the one hand, I absolutely love it. It is a glorious, glorious realization that there is life after classes - to go home and realize that you don't have to be working on a problem set.

No finals? Be still, my beating heart.

Even though during grad school I have only been taking two classes each semester, which isn't a full load, it still mentally splits you. If you have the overachiever bug and only two classes, it's very easy to spend WAY more time than you need to on the homework, making it perfect. Even though in grad school it's not hard to get an A, internally you still push yourself.

So even though two classes is not physically much time spent in class, and although homework for two classes doesn't take too much time from your week, it FEELS disproportionally distracting. Especially if the class is a project class, where you have to mentally deal with the project plus group dynamics.

So not having the distraction of classes really frees you up to focus on your research, and the productivity of experiments goes way up. Right?

Yeah, theoretically right.

But on the other hand, I'm having trouble adjusting to no classes. Whereas I used to wish - "man, if I just had a whole morning free, I could really get something done". Or, "if only I had an entire afternoon with nothing scheduled." Now, I find that although my evenings are still scheduled (exercise classes, RA meetings, basketball, occasional dinners with friends, meetings on conference organization), my days are fairly free.

Do you know how hard it is to get up in the morning, when the first thing on your schedule for the day is simply lunch? Especially when I do my best work at night? What ends up happening is that I stay up later and later, and sleep in later and later, until I have shifted myself completely around backwards. Not the ideal way to go about your life, being out-of-sync, even if technically there's nothing wrong with it.

World's Best School has an academic calendar that gives the whole month of January off, and classes begin in February. So all of Jan, I was sort of treating it like vacation - it's Christmas break, right? But now I'm coming to grips with the fact that my whole YEAR is going to be like this, with no classes. So at some point I have to get out of vacation mode - this is how I will be WORKING.

My advisor is also not the sort that micromanages, he stays hands off unless I ask for help. I love that about my advisor, but it exacerbates the motivation problem because he doesn't apply pressure. (I know, I know, I have terrible problems.... :P)

I have always had trouble keeping track of the date - who keeps track of whether it's the sixth, or the seventeenth? - but I could usually at least remember what day of the week it was. But now, the weekend is pretty much the same as the weekday. I can go in to work and do experiments on Sunday, and I can stay home on Tuesday (um, blizzard days are good candidates for working at home...). A lot of my work is on the computer, and really there's no need for me to be in the office for that if I don't want to. But it's turning out that perhaps I SHOULD be in the office, necessary or not, so that I force myself to be productive and not to get distracted.

Because what I am finding is that NO routine means it's hard to stay motivated, even though in general I'm really good at being self-motivated.

So this coming week, my goal is to establish some boundaries - a routine, artificial though it may be. I would like to get into the office at a reasonable hour (9:30, maybe? 10? Anything's better than 11 or later), make my coffee, check email, write a quick blog post, and then get to work. Because if I have a whole morning free, and I get nothing done, whose fault is that? If I'm checking Facebook in the afternoon that I have nothing scheduled, I have only myself to blame when my weekly meeting with my advisor comes around and I don't have results to show.

I have flexible, focused days available to me. I plan to use them.

How do you schedule your days without classes to plan around? How do you apply external motivators?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ground School

This semester I am taking a not-for-credit class that I am really excited about - Private Pilot Ground School. I have always wanted to get a pilot's license (it's on my wish list), and it turns out that the Flying Club here at World's Best School teaches a class every semester that helps you get your license.

To get a private pilot's license, you have to take a written exam, an oral exam, and then the actual flight exam. The Ground School class is intended to teach you all the knowledge necessary for the written exam. Some things about flying a plane you can't learn until you actually, you know, FLY the plane, but there's a lot you can learn on the ground. Thus, Ground School.

As a side note - if I get a pilot's license, I can add it to my driver's license and my scuba diving license, and now I'm all set for land, air and sea! Just call me Double - O....

The first class was this past Wednesday. Now when I was in undergrad, I did an Aerospace option for my senior year, so I have taken a couple Aero classes. I figured given that experience, I'd probably be familiar with at least some of the material. I skimmed the slides for the first ground school class ahead of time (overachiever bug is still alive and well after all these years in school), and I thought - well I have this in the bag.

So I walked into class the first day quite full of myself - didn't even bring paper and pencil to take notes. I leaned back in my chair, looking around at all the incredibly young faces in class, feeling smugly superior in my grad student status.

And for the first part of class, I did indeed have it under control. "This is an airplane," said the instructor, gesturing to an inflatable model, "This is the wing, and this is the engine." Easy, easy. We continued on. "This is an aileron, on the wing, and the elevator on the horizontal stabilizer, and the rudder on the vertical stabilizer. These are your control surfaces." the instructor explained as she pointed to each piece.

Still good! I have actually physically built all those parts. I helped build small remote-controlled airplanes in undergrad, so I am quite familiar with all the various flaps and structural pieces. And my speciality is control systems, so I even have a good idea how those control surfaces affect the plane.

We continued on, going over things like "Don't Drink and Fly" (the rule is eight hours bottle to throttle), and the different kinds of licenses you can get (multi-engine, commercial, instrument, etc.). As the instructor flipped through the slides, I glanced at the clock - the class goes 6 to 8pm, and it was about 7pm. I hadn't had dinner yet, and my stomach was starting to let me know.

The instructor also glanced up at the clock, realized both that it was halfway through class, and that she was not halfway through her material. "Okay class," she said, "We're going to have to speed up."

So we started flying (ha!) through the slides, at the same point the material was becoming new to me. Is the plane stable in roll? Stable in yaw? Stable in pitch? If the answer is yes, is it positively stable, neutrally stable, statically stable or dynamically stable? Or all of the above? None?

Ack! By the time we got through that section I was convinced that while a plane, in flight, COULD theoretically be stable, in my hands it would quite probably go UNstable quickly and dramatically. In fact we watched several painful YouTube videos to underscore how terribly, terribly things can go wrong in a plane. (How helpful, thank you!)

And then.


"Now," chirped the instructor, "we will talk about turning the plane."

 This is where my brain exploded.

To turn the plane to the left, for instance, you roll the plane left. The instructor drew a nice diagram on the board of the wings, tipped to the left. Now when you roll left, you create more lift on one wing than the other. The different lifts cause different drags, so you end up yawing to the left as well.

More pretty arrows were added to the diagram.

In addition when you roll left, the net force vector is now pointed at an angle, and your total force is now split into a vertical and horizontal component. That means you have less total lift going up, so your nose points down, and you have to compensate by pitching up.

Now we're in three dimensions, and the instructor had run out of ways to draw arrows, so she gestures with chalkboard erasers.

I have decided that if by some miracle I can prevent my plane from going unstable, I am never going to be able to turn. I will just have to pick an airport that is directly lined up with my final destination. Six degrees of freedom? Are you Aero people nuts? Thank goodness my MechE career only deals with a few degrees of freedom at a time....

Reeling from thinking about forces in three dimensions, I glanced again at the clock. 7:30pm. My stomach was talking to me now, and it wasn't a happy conversation.

"And now," said the teacher, "we are going to learn the really important information."

Really? Now?

"Now, listen closely, because here's the proceedure for getting out of a spin..."

Oh, no. This I may have to pay attention to. I stared as she drew on the board, spelling out acronyms for "easy memorization." Where was that paper and pencil I was too arrogant to bring??

"Okay. Now in addition to a spin, you may also get into a stall. So here's how you get out of that."

More acronyms. "And CAREFUL! This particular procedure is not instinctive, and in fact your instinct will be to do the exact OPPOSITE." Oh gees....

"And finally, class, we need to go over what to do in case your engine stops."

Okay, now, enough is enough! I'm going to need dinner for this... :)

I did try to pay attention to the engine-out case, but man I was starving, and my poor brain was fried from trying to think in six degrees of freedom. I left class no longer as smug as I was going in.

And now with the benefit of a few days to ponder the material, I waffle between thinking flying a plane isn't all that hard and that it is designed to inherently positively stable, and thinking that there is an infinte number of ways to screw things up and spiral into the ground. Still, I am very excited about the class and about eventually getting my license. If anything, I have learned that I need dinner ahead of time! Give me a sandwich, I'll read up over the weekend on the spin, stall, and engine-out scenarios, and then bring on next week!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Homemade Vanilla

Two years ago I gave out cranberry bread as Christmas favors. Last year I did eggnog bread. But this past Christmas 2010, I had in mind a project. I wanted to make my own vanilla.

I have forgotten quite where I came across this idea, but it did stick. It kept niggling around - you should do that someday, Miss Outlier - and so I kept the project in the back of my mind. But then once I decided that Christmas was a good excuse to make vanilla, suddenly I noticed examples everywhere. The whole world was going around extracting vanilla, it seemed.

It's like spending three months thinking, maybe I should get a new bedspread, and then the day you decide that YES, you do have money for the new bedspread, suddenly you must have one THAT DAY. And you spend two hours at the office shopping on the internet, intent on acquiring what you want (do you know how many OPTIONS there are?). Oh wait - is that just me? Ah, maybe it is. I also spent four months thinking about getting my ears pierced a second time, and then the day I decided on getting it done, the store was closed, so I spent an hour getting across town to another piercing shop rather than wait any longer.

It's just a me thing, I guess. Moving on.

I wanted to make vanilla. Now if you get a real vanilla bean at the whole foods store, just a single one, it's something ridiculous like $2.99 a bean. And I needed about a pound of beans. Yeah, that kind of shoots the whole "cheap homemade gift" idea in the foot. So I did some research, and strangely the best way to get large amounts of high-quality vanilla beans is on eBay. No joke - the wholesalers sell through there.

Figure: 1/2 pound Grade A Tahitian

I also learned that there are two kinds of vanilla beans (from Madagascar, and from Tahiti). And if you buy enough of one kind, they throw in a half pound of the other kind. Well OBVIOUSLY. I now am the proud owner of both kinds, and also more beans than any rational person should need.

The way you make vanilla extract is to basically get a bunch of alchohol, cut up vanilla beans, dump them in, and wait. The alcohol of choice is usually vodka. To make as much vanilla as I had bottles, I had to buy three handles of vodka at the liquor store. The fact that I barely got a second look with that purchase is a testament to the college town that Boston is, I think...

You can either put the beans in the vodka bottle, and then portion the vanilla into smaller containers when it's ready, or you can put the vanilla beans directly in the individual bottles and fill with vodka. I thought it looked kind of cool to see the actual beans in the bottle, so I chose the latter.

The bottles start out clear, obviously, because vodka is colorless (not odorless. my dorm residents were a little worried about me for a day - my whole room smelled like alcohol). Then over time, the vanilla extracts out and the liquid turns amber and then brown. 

Figure: Vanilla, about a month in.
I started the bottles in October, and kept them lined up on my bookshelf. Every week or so I'd shake them. It takes about three to six months to mature, so I figured Christmas would be just about right.

Figure: Labeled and decorated as gifts
During finals week last December, I took these little bottles around and dropped them off with the administrative assistants and shop guys.

The secretaries loved them - "Oh, these will be perfect for Christmas cookie baking!" one of them exclaimed. The shop guys, on the other hand, were a bit confused. Sort of a, "Thanks, I guess...." was all I got.

But just yesterday one of the shop guys stopped me and said - "My wife says to tell you a big thank you for the vanilla! She's thrilled to have it for baking." So see, I guess that gift just had to find the proper recipient. :)

A Cost Recap:

$19.53 vanilla beans
$27.60 vodka
$20.51 bottles
$67.64 Total

That made 5 of 5 oz. bottles, 5 of 10 oz. bottles, an 8.5 oz., 12.5 oz., and a 17 oz. bottle. So that's 113 oz. for $67.64.

So, 60 cents/ounce.

If you buy pure vanilla at the store, it's about $1.06/ounce or $1/ounce, or you can find it even cheaper for 56 cents/ounce plus shipping. So I didn't come out too far ahead in price, but again - that's really not the point. 

This project was easy and not time consuming, and got good results, so I'd say I'd do it again - except I now have enough vanilla to last me a lifetime, I suspect. In any case, a success!

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Total Paper Domination

    It started, as so many large undertakings do, with a simple problem. I wanted to look up an experimental parameter, and I knew I had seen a paper doing exactly the experiment I wanted to copy.

    Could I find that paper? Of course not.

    Could I remember that detail? Can Miss Outlier EVER remember a detail?

    Clearly there was a problem. I looked for a printed copy of the paper, no luck. In an email? Not so much. Somewhere buried in a folder on my hard drive? Probably.

    Before I knew it, I was rounding up ALL the papers I have on my computer - stashed in various folders, "Remember This For PhD," "Related to Useful Experiments," "PhD Exploration" - that have since lost their meaning. I also have a stash of old papers, sort of a lab historical file, that was given to me in a huge zip file from the most senior grad student when I joined the lab. I've always meant to see what was in there, because it would look terribly bad if I forgot to cite one of my own lab's papers. (I did find the paper I was looking for, by the way, it happened to be on my desktop. But at this stage, that was entirely beside the point.)

    And then the project got even more involved - because you see, I've always meant to get everything organized in a proper bibliography management software. For my Master's thesis, my strategy was pretty much to find all the papers I could, print them out in a binder, and then refer to them as I wrote Chapter 1: Introduction and Background. I put all the citations for the papers in a BibTeX file, so I could reference them as I wrote the thesis in LaTeX with a Lyx overlay. (If you don't know what that means, it couldn't possibly interest you anyway, don't worry.) So now that I was rounding up all my papers, it was the perfect time to choose a reference software and do things RIGHT.

    This, by the way, is classic nerd behavior. I adore Rands in Repose - if you are a nerd, or must deal with one on a daily basis, he is a must read. I'd like to share an excerpt which is relevant in this case:
    Chasing the Two Highs

    The First High: When the nerd sees a knot, they want to unravel it. After each Christmas, someone screws up the Christmas tree lights. They remove the lights from the tree and carefully fold the lights as they lay them in the box. Mysteriously, somewhere between last year’s folding and this year’s Joy of Finding the Lights, these lights become a knotted mess.

    The process of unknotting the lights is a seemingly haphazard one — you sit on the floor swearing and slowly pulling a single green cable through a mess of wires and lights and feeling like you’re making no progress — until you do. There’s a magical moment when the knot feels solved. There’s still a knot in front of you, but it’s collapsing on itself and unencumbered wire is just spilling out of it.

    This mental achievement is the first nerd high. It’s the liberating moment when we suddenly understand the problem, but right behind that that solution is something greater. It’s….

    The Second High: Complete knot domination. The world is full of knots and untying each has its own unique high. Your nerd spends a good portion of their day busily untying these knots, whether it’s that subtle tweak to a mail filter that allows them to parse their mail faster, or the 30 seconds they spend tweaking the font size in their favorite editor to achieve perfect readability. This constant removal of friction is satisfying, but eventually they’ll ask, “What’s with all the fucking knots?” and attack.

    A switch flips when your nerd drops into this mode. They’re no longer trying to unravel the knot, they want to understand why all knots exist. They have a razor focus on a complete understanding of the system that is currently pissing them off and they use this understanding to build a completely knot-free product - this is the Second High.

    Finding the paper on the desktop was the First High. But I was on to the Second High - complete paper domination.

    I was going to need a system. I had a choice - what software to use? Actually I already had a software, because as I said, I've always meant to organize things. I use Papers - which you have to pay a small amount for, but you get a student price and it is AMAZING. There are a bunch of other options, of course. Here at World's Best School they like you to use RefWorks or EndNote, and a lot of people do just fine with those. Zotero is also useful, and has nice browser plug-ins, and JabRef is used by the open-source crowd.

    But I've always felt that what I really want the software to do is keep track of the actual .pdf FILES, not so much the citations. I only need to cite things occasionally when I write articles, but I'd like to have all the information in those .pdfs available for me to easily find on a regular basis. The software Papers does just that - it's first and foremost an organization for your files. (I've been told Mendeley works much the same way, and is free.) It acts like iTunes, where you have all your files in the main library, and then you can make "Playlists," sort of, where you group the papers. So I have a bunch of playlists, for things like People Doing Manufacturing, and People Who Did Cool Stuff But Only Once, and Same Material As Me, and Same Process As Me. And any single journal article can be in as many playlists as you want, without making a physical copy of the file to put in another folder in the hard drive. I also make Smart Playlists, that automatically add files - for instance, Papers My LabMates Wrote - based on authorship in that case.

    And of course Papers also ties in to LaTeX, in whatever IEEE or other proper format, so the citation process is quick and painless when I need it.

    But the killer feature? Search, baby, search. Because all those files are .pdfs, I can search for a term, and find every single paper I have with that term in it. Even if it's not in the title. Awesome. Especially for papers titled things like, "Microfluidics: A Review". Um, gees, I might need a little more detail.

    And I can take notes on each paper, like, "Put in Section 3" and those are searchable too. So when I go to write Section 3 of my article, I can look up all the papers I wanted to include. Or, ahem, "Experimental Parameter for Temperature," so when I go to do experiments, I might be able to find what I need...

    So, dear readers, I am pleased to announce that a day a half later, I have gathered every paper I currently have in .pdf form, which is 632. I have populated the proper citation data for all 632 of those papers, and sorted them into meaningful groups (there are 200 that may be relevant to my PhD thesis). And at the end of all that, I did a search for the experimental parameter I was interested in.

    And exactly one result popped up - the paper that had once been lost, and prompted the whole organization spree.

    I have achieved that Second High, ladies and gentleman - total paper domination.

    How do you keep your papers organized? Do you have, or does your lab dictate, a software of choice?

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Cheesecake Bars

    Last night I had dinner with a bunch of girls, and we made it a potluck meal. I was immediately struck by how different a girl's potluck night is from a boy's potluck. Last Saturday there was a chili party, and the host sent around a spreadsheet to sign up to bring food. I put down cornbread (seems good with chili, right?). The other guys put down, "cheese." And, "chips." And, of course, "beer."

    Last night? One girl brought lamb meatballs with yogurt dipping sauce, another brought scallion pancakes and pork dumplings, and then I made chickpea casserole. For dessert we had white chocolate cheesecake with raspberry topping, and milk tea.

    We can debate whether it's okay to stereotype girls as better cooks, and whether these girls are self-selected to be more domestic since they live in a girl's dorm - but here's the bottom line. If you have to pick a potluck to attend, you want to go with the girls. :)

    I do have a point to this lengthy intro: the cheesecake was divine. And it inspired me.

    Purists will say that cheesecake must be made in a springform pan (and I do have one of those). But I'm lazy, so I thought I'd share some pictures from my recipe file of the last time I made cheesecake. Forget about spring-form and baking in boiling water - this one's not even in a pie shape!

    I used this recipe for cheesecake bars. Start by mixing up the crust, reserving some for topping later.

    Figure: Butter sugar flour - what's not to like?
    Figure: Press in with fingers, preferably as many fingers as possible so you maximize licking them clean.
    The filling is a pretty standard cheesecake filling, which depending on your outlook is either boring, or simple and fast. I generally land on the quick-and-easy philosophy.

    Figure: If you cook by yourself, you get to lick both beaters. Bonus!
     Pour into the casserole, top with crumbles reserved from the crust.

    Serve and enjoy!

    Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    How to Schedule A Committee Meeting

    I have all three confirmed members on my committee - woohoo! Now I'm scheduling my first PhD committee meeting. I had always heard older grad students complaining about how hard it was to schedule a committee meeting, and I always kind of laughed it off. I mean, how hard can it be? It's three people, for a short time, once every six months. Get over it.


    Turns out it's difficult.

    Now I only have three people on my committee, so I'm already starting off at an advantage. I've known people with up to five, and that just becomes a nightmare (or, "exponentially more difficult", if you're talking to a techie crowd...).

    You start with available blocks of time from 9-5 Monday through Friday. The first order of business is to look up the professors' teaching schedules for the semester. Can't meet during class times, obviously. Then you put in your own class schedule. Then take out lunch hour. Now what are you left with? That's your first iteration of possible meeting times. Of course professors are all busy, but I can't predict what other commitments they have.

    Now decision #1 - how much time do you leave for a committee meeting? Is it normally an hour? Two hours? I knew one student who spent three hours in a committee meeting - ack! I wasn't sure, so I polled some older students. I decided that I would try to schedule a one-hour block, and then expect it might go over to an hour and a half or so.

    Next, decision #2 - do you email all three professors at once, or separately? I guess if you had different things to say to each one, you'd do it separately. Since I only had three professors, I did single emails, so that they wouldn't each have to be privy to an entire thread of back-and-forths between all of them.

    Decision #3 - do you suggest meeting times? If so, how many options do you give? Or do you just ask, "when are you free?" Or, try the Doodle route? I absolutely love doodle as a scheduling tool, and a lot of people use it here for social scheduling or club meetings, and other informal stuff. But I know one student who asked his professors to fill out a doodle, and one of his (older) committee members got all bent out of shape about it. Felt that it was rude or unacceptable for him to display his entire schedule to the student and other professors. I suspect that is an outlier experience, but still... I suggested a block of time on four different days, and asked if the professors had any time free in the blocks I indicated. We shall see how that goes.

    Decision #4 - how much lead time? It's rude to ask about next week. I want it to be soon, not in three months. I went with a three week lead time, for no good reason except that it seemed reasonable.

    So I am quite sure that I WAY overthought a simple email for scheduling. I just didn't want to say anything wrong. I know my own advisor, but I'm kind of in awe of the other professors, and I want to make a good impression. The good news is, I don't think I can do anything to terribly mess anything up, so no matter what I choose, it's probably fine.

    How did you schedule your meetings?