Monday, September 10, 2012

MechE Ladies Reunion

There aren't very many people from my undergrad university at World's Best School. Or in Boston, for that matter. And there aren't very many women Mechanical Engineers in general.

So to get THREE of us ladies in MechE, all from the same undergrad university, together in Boston was quite a treat. It makes me very happy when friends visit! This was a while ago, but it still makes me smile to look at the photos.

Especially the ones of friends being silly at Boston tourist locations. :)


I have just moved in to a newly renovated apartment, and although it's been a few weeks, I just now feel like everything is where I want it. The last box I had left to unpack was "gardening supplies," so while I was out running errands at Home Depot this weekend I picked up some mums and foliage-type plants, and even splurged on a bromeliad. Opened up that last box, retrieved my pots and potting soil, and the finishing touch on my apartment is complete!

Now I feel like this is home. May not seem like much, but I do love my flowers and plants!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Manufacturing Video for Kids

One of the side projects I've done recently is a video about manufacturing for kids, targeted at the elementary school grades. This is part of a project that World's Best School is doing all over the institute, trying to help develop better teaching materials for school teachers in their classrooms. There are many video courses available over the internet, but making videos for science and math sometimes requires access to laboratories and equipment - which many video-makers may not have. However, World's Best School is full of young, energetic, highly intelligent students with access to sophisticated equipment and enough spare time that offering a bit of money provides a strong incentive to work on such things...

One of the topics that the program's coordinators specifically asked for was manufacturing. So two others and I (we all work in the Lab for Manufacturing) banded together and came up with three video concepts. We helped each other with script revisions and filming, and then each took responsibility for editing and submitting one of the three.

Mine is here, for your enjoyment.

It was surprisingly hard to get concepts down to the average 2nd or 3rd grade level, since I'm used to working at grad school level. I tried to do it without sounding condescending or overly simplified. Plus it's my first try at making a video in iMovie, so it was definitely a learning curve. If they need more videos in the future, I have lots more ideas, and next time around I'm sure I'll be much better at it!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Business Speak

I tell you what, I have been getting some emails from business-type folks recently that just rub me the wrong way. Used to be, I didn't have a business-to-engineering dictionary, so some of these things went over my head. But I'm a lot more sensitive now to the undertones, and I don't know if that's a good thing...
I can make myself available for coffee next week on Wednesday after 4 pm. Let me know if it works for you.
Translation: I am very, very busy, likely busier than you and more important, but if you feel that you really are worth my time, I will "make myself available." Of course, this depends on context, but let me assure you the context here was definitely I-will-deign-to-meet-with-you, based on my prior interactions with the person...
I should be able to make it. But I will confirm once again as the day approaches, since a lot of unexpected things have been coming up.
Translation: As of this moment, I don't have anything else to do. But if anything else remotely more interesting turns up, I'm dumping you and going to that. Just to warn you. And don't ask me now for confirmation - I don't want to be pinned down. Don't call me, I'll call you...

Sigh. Maybe I'm a little sensitive, but it does feel lately like everyone thinks they are more important than me. It does make me pay attention more when I write emails, so that I don't give that impression to other people. Because I find myself a lot more inclined to help people when I feel appreciated, so if I want to stay on good terms with others, I am reminded to always value their time (and express it that way!).

Monday, September 3, 2012

Pucker Factor

My friend was relating a story about a dangerous piloting mission he had just gotten back from flying - and on my end of the conversation, my ear was glued to the phone, taking in the harrowing details.

"We took off in minimum conditions from a tiny airstrip in the middle of nowhere, headed toward another tiny island in the vast ocean. Our destination airport had clear weather when we took off, but while we were flying the weather fogged in and closed off the landing site."

So where will you LAND?

"We had to quickly re-rout and head to the only other landing site within our fuel range."

Whew, I'm thinking - they are saved.

"But while we were flying and trying to divert to the alternate, fog closed in on THAT landing site too. The weather models predicted it should clear up by the time we got there and needed to land, but there was no guarantee."

So wait a minute - let me get this straight. You were flying, in terrible atmospheric conditions, over icy freezing water, running out of fuel, with any Coast Guard or other help hopelessly far away in case of trouble, and for some period of time there were NO LANDING SITES AVAILABLE?

"Yeah," he said, "That one had quite the pucker factor."

I'll say.

The story stuck with me, not only because of the gray hair I was growing, or because I love hearing adventure stories, but because of that phrase. Pucker factor.

Turns out, that's a common phrase in the military. To quote the NY Times,

In armed services slang, ''the pucker factor'' is the stress that afflicts human beings on full alert. If the factor is missing, the person reacts like a robot, numb to sensitizing tension; if the factor is too high, the person crumples or ''puckers'' in panic.

I'm pretty sure "pucker" refers to the tightening of some, ahem, distinctive muscles rather than "crumpling in panic," but we'll give the NY Times the benefit of the doubt for trying to be classy.

I had never heard this slang before, but it seems like a uniquely perfect way to sum up the feeling. A bit of a flippant phrase - that both brushes off of the gravity of the situation (an attitude that irritates me sometimes when I'm worried for the safety of my friend), but also thumbs a nose to the danger (an attitude that allows folks in those situations to do their jobs and not get overwhelmed).

Now I don't deal with any hair trigger situations in my world, but I bet I could find some places in my life to work this phrase in.

Reserved the lab equipment because the tracking code predicted your samples will arrive, but you haven't actually received the package yet? Pucker factor 4. Writing a conference paper on a deadline and you didn't actually do the experiments yet? Pucker factor 6. Advisor pops in unexpectedly on Friday at 5pm and wants to talk about long term plans and experimental results? Pucker factor 8.

The top of the scale is admittedly different for most of us than for the pilots, given that nothing in research is going to die (except for bio grad students - bless your souls for having to keep cultures alive), but I think the sentiment still applies, no?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Buying Springform Pans and Multimeters

I wish there was a shop that had everything I needed, before I knew I needed it. Where the proprietor had already done the research and picked out the correct products based on my particular constraints and personal cost/benefit tradeoffs.

Alas, such a shop does not exist.

But the problem is, when I have a particular item I need, I feel driven to find ALL options, and evaluate them, and make sure I make the BEST choice possible given a set of optimization constraints.

The engineer in me, I'm sure, contributes to this behavior.

Because if I was a true business person, I would have a "minimum standard" approach instead of an "optimum solution" approach. (Of course not all business people act this way, but in my experience it is much more common.) In a "minimum standard" approach, as you go searching for the product you want, if you find something that is good enough for what you need, at an acceptable price, you stop there and buy it. In the worst case, you spend more than you should have, or you miss out on a much better quality product or features you really should have had. In the "optimization" approach, in the extreme case there is never a decision because you are constantly trying to find something better than the current best - because the current best is only the best one you've found SO FAR.

On that spectrum, I tend to find myself leaning toward the never-ending decision process...

Now the way that self-help books tell you to fix this, is to consider what your time is worth. If you spend hours deciding between $200 and $210 options, then you would have been better off to just choose quickly and spend those hours working for your salary.

This logical approach doesn't work so well when a) you are a grad student so your hourly wage is in the gutter, and b) you enjoy the optimization process itself.

So I recently had to buy two things: a new springform pan, and a multimeter.

I now know WAY, WAY more than I ever thought I would about those two products. Just when I felt overwhelmed with the number of options available for springform pans - do you have ANY IDEA how many multimeters there are out there?? Oh, the possibilities!

The good news is, after an exhaustive search and research process, I have settled on the 9" and 7" size NordicWare Leakproof Springform pans, and the Fluke 87-V meter (the latter from eBay, to mitigate the cost....).

I also had to buy sheets, and don't even get me STARTED on thread count...

The only thing, come to think of it, that I don't have this problem with - is shoes. I am totally a "minimum standard" type of girl in that regard. Thus the huge collection of footwear I own... On second thought, perhaps the overanalysis is good in that it keeps me frugal - ha!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Overheard in Lab

This afternoon after lunch, in my cubicle I overheard my labmate and another student, heads down hunched over a pad of green engineering paper, busily working through a basic mechanics problem - and by the end of the conversation, they had derived from basic tensor theory the deformation expected in an infinite plane of compressed material, as opposed to an axially loaded rectangular bar, which requires a correction using the bulk modulus because Poisson's Ratio is not in effect.

Whew. Let it be known that I can't derive this from my head like my labmate did - there would be heavy textbook referencing for me to get there... and maybe some Wikipedia entries...

At the end of the whole derivation, however, the answer was a fairly standard equation, and any mechanics folks would recognize the method.

"Do I have to cite this in my conference paper?" asked the thoroughly dazzled student.

"No," says my labmate, "That would be like citing Hooke's Law... it's a commonly understood thing that uses a trivial derivation to those in the field."

There was a moment of silence in the office, and then a small voice piped up from the other end of the room.... "Um, I just cited Hooke's Law in my paper..."

Some of us are more thorough than others!