Saturday, February 28, 2009

Shifting Plans

So, this particular weekend has nearly set a record for number of times plans have changed.

I was going to go to New York City for the weekend - a friend from undergrad who lives far, far away now was going to be there. But then she had an accident (she'll be fine, thank goodness) and couldn't make it. So then out of the blue another friend asked me if I wanted to go rock climbing after work Friday night with a couple other people, and since I was now free I said sure! But then she got caught up in lab and the trip got canceled.

I had signed up for a cooking class Sunday morning; one of my friends in the dorm is organizing it. But the cook doesn't want to come out tomorrow due to adverse weather conditions in the forecast, so that's been rescheduled as well.

Shoot, the other thing I had on my list this weekend is a basketball game Sunday afternoon. Let's cross fingers hoping that's still on...

But you know what? I'm lucky to have so many cool things available for me to do - and people with which to do them. And if they all fall through, I'm not one to complain about a night curled up with my computer and a big mug of hot cocoa.

Some weekends are just like that.

Conference Paper Writing

I am excited that I have reached the point in my science career where I have enough data and results to be presenting papers at conferences. I am a mechanical engineer, as I have said, and my specialty is machine design. This means in particular I know a lot about manufacturing, design, and control systems. Can we say quals topics? :)

I have presented at two conferences so far - one last November, and one this January. The one last November is a yearly conference, and the call for papers for this year's conference came out a month ago or so. The deadline for the abstract is this Monday. So this weekend I am working on the abstract I am going to submit- it'll be on the design and testing of machine I built for manufacturing. No - you don't say...

Can you believe it's that early? Before I was a grad student, I had no idea how papers and journals and conferences worked. I assumed, silly me, that scientists would lay down some hot science, write up the data and results, and then sumbit it to the most relevant conference.

Ah, no.

Most conferences ask for abstracts to be submitted WAY in advance. Like this one - abstract in March, full paper in June, revised manuscript by August, conference not until November. So most people haven't even done all the work yet that they plan to put in the paper - they just write the abstract based on what they have already done plus the projection of what they will do by the deadline. Scary.

And there is a whole politics juggle about what conference to submit to. The best conference might not be the most relevant, and the most relevant might be too far away or expensive for the lab to send you to. You can't submit the same content to two different conferences, but you can submit the same content to the journal that sponsors the conference you presented at, so you have to plan ahead to what journals you are aiming for.

And don't get me started on journals and the juggling that goes on there. My next career step, which my advisor and I have talked about, is submitting my first journal article. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it...

What it all boils down to, I gather, is that you want to share the hot science you have created with the people who are going to care about it. So really all the choices you make about when and where, what and who you publish your work with... all those choices are just supposed to help you share the answer you have found with other people who might be up against the same question.

And of course, say the conference just happens to be in, oh - Florida - purely hypothetically, of course. Well, then obviously the people working on the same question you are will be there. Right? Right.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Celebrating Independence

I just read on Facebook tonight about yet another of my undergraduate friends expecting a child (in this case it's his wife that is expecting, I'm sure the wife would like to note there's a difference in the work involved). A rather ridiculous number of my friends are now parents, married, engaged, or have been dating enough years to be at the "it's just a matter of time now" point of a relationship. I passed a Facebook milestone late last year when 51% of my friends fell into those categories. Yay for advanced search on Facebook, when an inquiring geek mind wants to know these things on a whim at 1 am.

I offered my hearty congratulations to my friend, and then wondered to myself whether this means that I am getting old. While it probably does, (my boyfriend from freshman year now has two children with his lovely wife, how is that for making me feel old when I went back to visit), I am going to blame it on the fact that I did my undergrad in the south/midwest, where getting married young is common. My parents married at 19, and my grandparents married at 18. This is why I have been fortunate enough to get to know my great-grandmother.

I have most decidedly not carried on the married-at-18 tradition, or even the married-after-college tradition.

I have to say, I would not be averse to having an "SO" as it's known here - a significant other. Actually, the joke goes that the first two questions students from World's Best School ask each other (rather than the standard "where are you from, what are your hobbies") are "where is your SO, and what is your OS?". Operating system, of course. :) It would be nice to have someone to come home to each night, a partner to support each other and share in life, someone to love.

But then I think a little harder, and I find the idea of being tied down to one person scares the spit out of me. Because look what I can do on my own! I can do little things like:

- eat whenever I want, and
- eat whatever it pleases me to cook
- sleep whenever I need to
- decorate as I wish
- make weekend plans without consulting anyone else
- change my plans with no trouble

And I can do big things like:

- decide my own career path
- decide what country I want to live in (I was offered a job in Singapore upon graduation if I want it)
- manage my own finances
- make my own friends on my own merits
- take time off to vacation, visit family and friends, go home for the holidays.

For the right person, I suppose sacrificing being able to say "I suddenly want to go watch a movie RIGHT NOW" doesn't seem like much. All of the things in that list could be worth giving up. But for now, I'm happy celebrating my independence.

And, Watchmen was awesome. I didn't even miss the previews. :)

RA Interviews

So the grand total of interview calls I've received is now up to nine. One of them actually I was not able to schedule (they only gave me two time slots, and I couldn't do either one because of OTHER interviews I'd already scheduled), so that leaves me eight.

Three down so far.

It has been fascinating to go around to the various dorms. I didn't do my undergrad here, so I didn't get to experience the whole culture. But every dorm, and each floor, has its own identity and sense of community. Some known for the smart kids, some for the party kids (well, as much of a party school as this math and science place is...). For instance, in one dorm the RA keeps a stash of candy outside his door for the kids. In another, the RA keeps a jar of condoms.

Each place has its own traditions. In one dorm, all events are scheduled for :17 past the hour. Just because. Another floor has a half gallon of milk in its own dedicated fridge that is 14 years, six months old. They have a birthday party for it each year, but it's in a biohazard container now as it ate through the original carton. The older dorms are pretty much a free-for-all for each person to customize their own rooms and floors with painting, shelving, and general modification. Ceiling tiles painted, loft beds constructed, things suspended from the ceiling, you name it some kid has done it. This leads to some pretty nerd-tastic decorating. I've seen chess boards pinned to walls that people move as they walk by. I've seen a mural of the xkcd Map of the Internet comic, and an archway painted with the Stargate Atlantis ring. I love it! A few of the dorms even have woodworking shops in their basements - I'm hooked! I love me my tools. Of course, I have my own if the dorm doesn't supply them... :)

I kinda miss the dorm life sometimes from my undergrad days. Walking around these dorms watching kids playing cards on the floor, hearing random bursts of laughter from those hard at work on problem sets, noting the rows of empty bottles in the kitchen (cheap vodka FTW). Seeing doors open, people heating Ramen in the kitchen, boys fixated on Halo in the lounges.

On the other hand, I don't miss it enough to make it worth it without the free rent. Free rent ROCKS! I make sure to check what kind of rooms each dorm has available for the RAs. Some dorms just give a regular room to the RAs, making a room that is usually a double into a single. Those are not so nice, especially if you have to use the community bathroom. But the newest dorms have dedicated apartments built in for the RA. One I got to see had a bedroom, kitchen, living/dining room, walk in closet, nice big personal bathroom with walk in shower. Very modern, very city, very chic. One RA had his apartment set up with an HD projector pointed at one blank wall - which gives an awesome six foot screen - sweet! So yeah, if I had my druthers, living in an apartment inside an undergrad dorm would be perfect.

I am really excited about possibly getting one of these jobs. I know it sounds silly, but I really have a heart for these kids. I see myself so clearly in the undergrads here, and I am so thrilled to live in a place where the undergrads are so unique, driven, brilliant, and passionate. I love the fact that they are so independent, like I am. One of the housemasters told us the story of an email that went out at 9am one Saturday (at which point I said - 9am? they were up? and he said that they had just not yet gone to bed...) where some residents of the dorm announced they were going to build a DDR system. They figured out what they needed, and sent out a list, and said their goal was to have to built by 7pm and then to throw a party. And do you know, they did it. They downloaded the software open source off the internet, had some EE guy program it all up. Pressure sensors, mats, wire, stock for making support bars all materialized out of the woodwork - kids just had random stuff laying around. Some of the MechE kids configured the pressure sensors into the mat, some art kids figured out how to make the arrows as a cover for the mat, the A/V stuff fell into place somehow. And do you know, by 7pm the DDR system was ready - and the dorm rocked out in true geek style.

How inspiring is that? I get to live and work in a place where people dream big and make the dreams come true. Where the improbable is the order of the day, and nobody even blinks an eye at the sheer genius of it all.

That is why I want this job - I want to help make sure these kids and healthy and happy, well adjusted and following their passions.

And if I have to hand out condoms, well shoot, happy to help. Keep your door closed, pleaseandthankyou, and please refer to the directions if you need....

Monday, February 23, 2009

Somebody Lock up my Gun

Do you see this? This is my week. I have no time.

On the up side, I have seven interviews for RA positions (with free rent - woohoo!). I am way excited about this, but I barely have time to get to the interviews. And I can't really turn down the interview because I'm too busy, because that doesn't say much for the amount of time I have to give the kiddoes...

On the down side, I am still not done with Chapter 5 of the thesis. And I haven't finished the experiments I wanted to get to. And I have homework due tomorrow.

Which all makes for a very discouraging meeting with my advisor tomorrow. But I am determined to be productive this evening.

Wish me luck, I'm diving in....

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Making Figures

I have put in my 12 hours for the day, and my brain is whupped. Yes, whupped. But I can't settle down for the night, so I'm writing to clear my head.

I am currently writing the design section of my thesis. I thought this thesis would get easier after the painful introduction and background sections, and I thought the design section would only consist of pulling together the calculations I've already done. However, I've been here a year and a half, so some of the early calculations for my thesis were over a year ago. In looking back at my early notes in my lab notebook, all I can say is - what the hell? Sometimes, especially in my sketches, I can't make heads or tails of what I was thinking. Hey, didn't become an engineer because I'm good at art...

In the Excel sheets and FEA simulations I did, I didn't clearly label what I was doing. I thought I was clear, you know, "Study 1 - Thermal 2 - Run 4" nicely and neatly numbered. But which one was the RIGHT one? And the numbers are all there in Excel, and some numbers are bolded. But WHY did I bold those?

I always am sort of in a rush when I do analysis. Isn't every grad student? You just want to get the answer so you can go take data and turn out some results. I always intended to go back and clean up those figures, annotate that Excel sheet. I never thought it would be months before I revisited the issue, and with my poor memory it's only weeks until I forget what I was doing.

Ack. Only myself to blame.

So what I've had to do is basically re-do all my calculations. This has had two blessings: one, since January I have been taking AMAZING notes in my new lab notebook (I ran out of space in the old one). Two, I have discovered a few errors I made. Not large errors, thank goodness, but small things I should have tidied up. Assumptions I should have checked even though I knew they were good assumptions, for instance. For my thesis, I want precisely no errors, and no room for my work to be questioned.

So I've been doing figures. All day. Carefully and well formatted. You know what I mean (or you should, if you ever give Power Point presentations). All titles in the same font. Nice big font, of course. All data with a clear legend. Concise and helpful titles. Plot lines thick enough to see, in different colors for clarity, but also one dotted and one solid so if the paper's in black and white you can still read the chart. Always use the one consistent kind of plot line for theoretical results, and a different consistent kind of plot line for experimental results. Axes appropriately sized and divided, and consistent for charts of the same type.

And you know what the most disheartening thing is? If you do a figure correctly, it looks obvious. It looks simple. It looks like it took you no work. When in fact, it took you four hours to get it to look that good.

It's exhausting. But, lookie here. This is what I had, from nine months ago:

Ah, yes. Node 22837, of course, of Thermal Run 2.

Here is what I have now, with small errors corrected (note the different slopes of the lines now), simulation re-done (took me SIX times to get it to converge, sweet rainbows...), and graph nicely formatted:

Yay me. And you bet your buck tooth that I have three pages in my lab notebook documenting how I went about it this time.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Today Miss Outlier pulled a Dr. Isis and helped herself to some shoe therapy.


Oh, yes. This now makes Miss Outlier over six feet tall, but hey she can't help that she's built like a model.

Bring it on, weekend!

Random Bits I can't quite make a post out of

- I applied last month to be an RA in the undergrad dorms here at World's Best School. RAs here are grad students living in the dorms, and are expected to be part mentor, part academic tutor, and a huge part social help. These are really competitive positions because the rent is free. It's hard to get even an interview - and I got three! Woohoo! Wish me luck...

- I officially turned in my application to take the qualifying exams for the PhD program in May. Yikes. These usually require about three months to study for, and in my department of Mechanical Engineering, the pass rate on the first attempt is usually 50%. You get two chances at the exam, and if you fail twice you just have to leave with your Masters. The girl who was supposed to room with me this year is now in Texas - because she failed twice. No pressure or anything there.

The exam is two parts - a research presentation (usually on your Masters project) and exam questions in three subjects of your choice. There is a list of question topics you can choose from, because the powers-that-be realize nobody can answer PhD level questions in every area of MechE. My specialty is machine design and manufacturing, so my choice of topics is Design, Manufacturing, and Control Systems. I've already taken all the reccomended classes to prepare, so now I just have to get my head in gear and start studying. Wish me luck, again!

- I have been elected Treasurer of G.A.M.E. - the Graduate Association of Mechanical Engineers. My mother and her whole side of the family are accountants, and I've learned a lot through that. I also took an accounting class for fun once, so I feel like I can handle the simple debit/credit entries required for a student club... Should be fun, and has the added bonus that being more involved in the club means I get to know all the MechE students better over the course of the term.

- I am having a blast in archery class. Except that, if you don't hold your elbow in the correct position, the string snaps the inside of your arm. You can wear an arm guard, but I figured it doesn't hurt that much, and I'd learn the correct position quicker if I didn't. But I forgot that I have a really high pain tolerance. So to me, what "doesn't hurt much" leaves a lovely purple bruise up the inside of my bow arm. Couple that with where I gave blood and they had to stick me several times, and people are starting to ask questions. I'm not sure if I should say my boyfriend's beating me, or pass it off as track marks...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Taking the Lead

As I may have mentioned before, my lab is starting a new project called Ufac II which I will be heavily involved in. At the moment, this project comprises three students including myself. There is the potential for a couple or few more to join us.

We had our first official meeting last week, with the professor and research scientist who will be leading/advising the project. During this first meeting, we students were told to come up with a list of tasks involved in the project, and a timeline for completing them. A Gantt chart, essentially, for those who recognize this word.

So I waited four days or so, and I heard not a peep from the other two students. One of the other students said she was interested in taking the lead in organizing the logistics for this project, so I was going to let her do so. But after four days, I sent out an email suggesting we meet to get the Gantt chart ready before our next meeting with our advisors.

So I got back responses that said, "sure!". And I thought, gees, this is like pulling teeth. How about somebody suggesting a time? So I went ahead and found a time that worked for everybody, and when the day came around we all gathered around the whiteboard. And neither one of the other two said anything. It got a little awkward, so I started the discussion and asked questions and basically we reviewed the high-level tasks and broke them down into responsibilities which we divvied up amongst ourselves. No schedule or chart, though.

I waited another week and still heard nothing from the other two students. So I finally sent out an email and said we should meet Wednesday, today, because we needed to have this thing done before our meeting Thursday.

We shall see how it goes this afternoon.

In undergrad, there was this unspoken law. When a class had a group project during the term, the groups were either self-formed by the students or assigned by the teacher. Either way, the law was that the first person to send an e-mail coordinating logistics of the first group meeting was the defacto group leader. Never failed. The person who cared the most and had natural leadership tendencies would get antsy from not hearing anything, send out an email, and boom - leader of the group.

I was trying really hard not to do that here, because the other girl said she'd be interested in heading this project. Besides, everybody at this school has leadership tendencies, not just me. I really would rather have somebody else take the lead, that way I can just contribute my ideas and work and not have to handle logistics. In a final twist, however, I am really good at logistics and keeping on top of people, and I have the most experience out of the three of us.

So do I look like I'm steamrolling the other two students if I take the lead? Or is that then their own fault for not stepping up to the plate?

We'll find out this afternoon. I'm going to keep quiet as long as I can in the meeting, but if I end up with a pile of teeth at the end, I'm sayin' I resisted as long as I could.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Because THAT'S what I needed

My beloved Mac has gone wonky on me. On startup, the Suitcase fails, System Preferences crashes when opened, and Safari crashes when opened. Lyx, my LaTeX thesis writing program, also won't work.

Thank goodness it works in Safe Mode. But then I don't get the Internet.

Actually, that might do wonders for my productivity.

Sigh. Another hump in the road.

Keeping Connected to Old Friends

I have just put a batch of homemade chocolate pudding in the fridge to cool. Yum. It reminds me of my dad, who used to make it when I was little.

That leaves me with twenty minutes to attack a topic.

I have found that when I send an old friend a Facebook message asking how they are doing, I never get more than "fine" back. If I send an email, I might get a few sentences. But if I really want to keep in touch with people, I have to call.

So I do. When I do my laundry, I call a friend while the dryer runs. I start at the top of my phone list and work my way around, so all friends get talked to... eventually. How quickly depends how often I do my laundry. If they don't pick up, I leave a message and call the next one. It's a two-fer special, because then I get a call back the next day.

This system works really well for me, and I love hearing stories about how lives are going. It's especially interesting for me because only two of my friends have chosen grad school, the rest have jobs and lives and husbands and wives and - gulp - kids now. I get to vicariously pretend to have a paycheck and a house, and they get to relive the glory days of late nights and ordering in pizza.

It's even better when they come visit. Last week, I had my first visit from a friend I knew in undergrad. It's been nearly two years since I graduated, just for background. My friend has now married his girlfriend, moved to Texas, and works for National Instruments. He was teaching a class on how to use National Instrument's software for employees in a company that is in my area. So we got together, I showed him around campus and took him out to dinner. I was very proud to show off my work and my campus, and over dinner he confessed that he was a little jealous that he didn't have the flexibility that being a student offers. I think, of course, that he was jealous of the Very Cool Stuff that I build. :) But I digress.

The funny thing is that I was going to say that I was jealous of his world - sometimes I feel a little like I've been left behind by my friends. He seems like he's moved up a stage in life - he has a wife now, a car, a job at work with projects directly applicable to the real world. Did I mention he doesn't live in a dorm. And, for crying out loud, he does not have to take TESTS anymore?

So to each his own, and honestly I wouldn't trade what I am doing for any of my friend's lives. I may not have all those "grown-up" type things now, but I will eventually graduate. And when I do take on those adult responsibilities, I will be doing it with an advanced degree in a field I love that I can apply to whatever career path I fancy.

But sometimes these conversations with old friends leave me with a dilemma. I have some friends who are not where they want to be in life. One friend living in a city she hates because her husband got a job there. Life is especially hard for those with degrees in fields that are really tough to get into right now - my journalism friends come to mind (one of whom just got laid off from a newspaper job she got after graduation). One friend, who so inspires me, was the first one of her family to ever go to college, much less get a degree. But instead of escaping small-town life like she wanted, she gave up some of her dreams to care for her mother. Now that her mom is better she is stuck in a crappy job in her hometown, just like she never left.

So my dilemma is this: how do I tell stories about what I am doing now (graduating with a Master's from World's Best School) and places I have been (Singapore, London, Alabama) without sounding arrogant? How do I get across the point that I am still so very proud of my friends, even if they don't have the same opportunities or make the same choices I did?

How do you brag about your life to someone who is not happy with theirs, without sounding like a jerk?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cheapness of Grad Students

Look, I realize grad students are cheap.

It's the nature of the game. Everybody's on stipend, here. Unless you have an alternate source of income, (I'm looking at you, married-with-working-spouse guys in the lab) we are all about the same. I have side gigs, but that's not the point.

1) I happily consume my free pizza at student seminars with everyone else, and I volunteer to help prepare food for coffee hour for grad students.
2) I use student discounts wherever possible (hello, student card). Yay for 15% off bus tickets at Greyhound!
3) I get my textbooks from, and when the professor says we can use the previous edition I usually do that.
4) I carefully plan my trips and adventures, and don't mind sharing coed hotel (or hostel, as in London) rooms with friends.
5) I got my extra computer monitor and my TV off of Craigslist. Funny story, the monitor. For a pristine 17" widescreen flat panel, I paid $20. It "seemed to be a fair price for a used monitor" said the ivy league senior with daddy's money.... can we say out of touch with the real world? But hey, I didn't complain...

These are all good things, people. But there are certain places I'd like to point out to my fellow grad students I've met along the way that cheapness is not acceptable:

1) Don't take four pieces of the cake and a tupperware full of the fruit I just spent the last 45 minutes helping cut into individual portions. Especially when there are 150 more people behind you who'd like to get a snack. In fact, please don't bring tupperware to events with free food and leave. Stay for the flippin' event!
2) Don't ask me to pay for half of the gas to get to the grocery store, when you were going anyway. That's just rude to ask of a friend - if you have to calculate mileage, please just let it rest...
3) Buy the textbook, for crying out loud. If you are in grad school, you should be taking the class because it is at least somewhat useful, or interesting. The books should be useful. And don't get the "international" paper-back version they sell on eBay, the paperbacks get torn within the semester, and you want a reference.
4) Instead of making the trip awkward for all those involved because you are nickel- and dime-ing every meal and expense, try going on less trips and having a bit more to spend on each. That way, you won't make us buy you a water at the basketball game.
5) Don't, for heavens sake, steal the batteries from the remotes in the TV lounges provided for students. Or the HDMI cable. Or the chairs in the lounge. Just let me watch a game once in a while, with all equipment present and accounted for...

Please and thank you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On the Blending of Love and Science

Oh sweet rainbows. Could there be any more chick flicks on TV this weekend?

I have been thinking today about the blending of love and science. Does the scientific approach have any place in relationships, and as women in science do we have a different experience?

In thinking about the various relationships and adventures in love I have observed in my friends and colleagues, there are two things I want to discuss. One is the difference I see between those in the sciences and those not, and the other is the difference I see between college and graduate school.

The difference between college and graduate school is pretty obvious. Holycrapeverybodygotmarried. I think this partly has to do with the fact that I did my undergrad in the middle of the bible belt. It doesn't have so much to do with religion, but I think in the South/Midwest the average marrying age is younger, and it is quite common for people to get married quickly out of highschool and college. I have bought an incredible number of wedding gifts for my friends from undergrad in the past three summers - I am thrilled that they are all happy, but selfishly I must say that I hope some cosmic tallybook is recording all of that for use when I get married someday. I recently passed a milestone on Facebook, in that 51% of my friends are now engaged or married. Nothing like going back for homecoming to find your boyfriend from freshman year is married with a one-year-old to make you feel like people have moved on without you. :)

But I can see the difference being married makes on those in grad school. There are several guys in my lab who are married, one who is engaged, and several who are in long-term relationships. As an aside, one of the married guys has a newborn, and his wife brought in the wee one wrapped in blankets to lab one day to introduce. My maternal instincts kicked in so strongly it wasn't even funny - I nearly decided to quit grad school and adpot....

The common thing I see among these friends is that they seem more balanced, more grounded. Being married has given them a better perspective - school doesn't mean any less to them, but they realize that there is more to life than the science. I think it also helps to go home to your significant other at the end of the day, because you get unconditional support and reassurance from them, recognition that yes, even if your science flopped that day, you are still amazing. This doesn't mean single people can't be grounded and confident, I'm just staying I think it's a bit harder.

Now, a point about the difference I see between those in science and those not. I honestly expected as a freshman in college that girls in engineering would have less drama in their love lives. We are supposed to be logical, right? Some of my best friends from college were girls (most definitely not engineers) I met in the dorm, who I grew very close to and who provided an outlet for me outside my school and science endeavors. These girls and I supported each other, and I was there with them for many an ice-cream binge after a breakup, or comforting sessions after somebody fell apart crying in the bathroom. What I am saying is, there was drama a-plenty. One of these girls is now married, and another is engaged.

I fully expected that the girls I knew in engineering would handle their love lives differently. They would make better choices, I thought, because they could rationally weigh their decisions. Well, as you can guess, a big 'ol "HA!" to that idea. There was just as much drama if not more than with my girls outside the sciences. Same thing in grad school. I suppose no matter how rational you think you are, the emotions will get you every time. Perhaps, even, the girls in engineering were less prepared to deal with the emotions - we get very little practice in our field at the emotional side of things.

So back to my original question: Does the scientific approach have any place in love, and as women in science do we have a different perspective or experience of love?

Well, gees, who am I to say?

I am going to propose that yes, scientific approach does help in love, as does education of any sort. Being able to take a step back and think for a minute does wonders to guard against rash decisions. I am going to cling to my perhaps naive notion that you can save yourself a world of hurt if you just take a minute to evaluate what you are doing, no matter what the area.

Do women and men in science experience love differently? I know for myself, I appreciate the people in my life who love me even more because I know it's not logical - and I love them back without having to explain it, or to justify it. I pride myself on being logical, but when a boy came along I really fell for I threw all of that out the window. So I guess what I'm saying is I think love is universal, and you can't do a flippin' thing about it.

So what do you think, internet? Am I just young and nerdy and have no idea what I'm talking about? What have been your experiences - has science affected the relationships in your life? Or does just asking that question kill the romance?

Oh, and a Happy (now that I have completely over-analyzed it) Valentine's Day to you -

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Adventure for the Day

A couple weeks ago, the girl who sits across the cubicle wall from me in the office found evidence of mice in her bag of almonds. After this revelation, the whole office was prompted to check their food at their desks.

I would never have guessed the amount of food that started showing up. People pulled out apples, bananas, hot chocolate mix (okay, maybe that was me), protein bars, Hershey's kisses, popcorn, lunchables (yes, lunchables, of the kiddie variety... apparently they were on sale at ShopRite), and all manner of other goodies. We could have fed an army.

Lots of people had mice nibbles in their food, and droppings in their drawers. The mice (or one very dedicated mouse) seemed to particularly like chocolate. Good taste, I say.

So we called facilities to come set traps, but I thought they never came. In the meantime we all locked down our desks, and kept a sharp eye out. Although a little furry streak was spotted a couple times, usually late at night when it was uncorroborated, no mouse was ever caught.

And then my cubicle started smelling a little... off. My cube mates cleaned out their desks, and I made sure all my gym clothes were washed. One student never sits at his desk, so we were afraid he had something molding away in there, but we didn't want to rummage through his drawers without permission.

But then today, the girl who originally sounded the alarm (who sits over the cubicle wall from me) wandered over to ask if we thought something smelled off. I said it did, but we couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Have you checked the traps, she asked? Cue dumb looks.

Turns out facilities people had set traps, I just didn't notice. And there was a mouse in one. RIght under my desk, in the corner. I poked my head under, and there he was. Staring back at me.

I am, unfortunately, too squeamish to wiggle my way under a desk and retrieve a three day old dead mouse which looks at me from cold, unblinking eyes. One of the other boys carted it off, and I think he just earned himself lunch from me.

And the girl who started it all, who blew the whistle and then discovered the source of the smell, asked the guy in her cubicle why he hadn't mentioned the faint odor. "Because," he said, "I thought it was you....".

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New Adventures of the Shooting Variety

In the spirit of my "wishes" post, I added a new class this semester.

Hello, archery! Of the recurve bow variety. I look exactly like this:

This activity has added an new and unexpected dimension to my day. As in, when I get up in the morning and I go to wash my hair, my arms talk to me. Quite clearly. They say, "um, no." and refuse to make it up to my head. And after I clear that little hurdle, my back chimes in. "Oh, that bookbag of yours on the floor? Yeah, it wants to stay there. It's too far of a distance to lift to your shoulder," says my helpful back. And now that I am irritated that the bookbag is in cahoots with my muscles, I realize that my coffee is also in on the game. It has relocated itself to the top shelf, which requires both arm and back muscles to stretch to reach.

At this point I cry foul, and leave for lab with wet hair, my bookbag carried at the level of my knees, and without my usual caffiene buzz. The whole kaboodle is modifying my normal routine a little bit, but really what's a few more voices talking to me amongst the usual complement in my head? :)

I was really excited to get into the class, because I was only on the waitlist. The teacher asked us the first day if we were right- or left-handed, and I (as usual) had to cause problems by saying I am both. This is true - I write left-handed, but play sports and do most other things right-handed. I wasn't sure which applied.

So I did the whole first class using a right-handed bow. When we were practicing how to draw, I suddenly realized quite clearly that I was not, in fact, right-handed. In hind sight this should have been obvious because (in spite of the fact I do most things right-handed) I do, you know, write with the left hand. That's kinda the definition of left-handed. Once again, my arms piped up to help me with this concept. "Wrong hand! wrong hand!" they yelled. I felt all discombobulated, I kept sighting out of the wrong eye, and my weaker arm was forced to be the draw arm.

So I had to cause problems yet again and ask for a left-handed bow in the next class. The result being, as I said, both halves of my body are equally unhappy.

But I am looking forward to improving. And, not only is this something I have always wanted to try, but it is also a new adventure in extra-curricular activities (see helpful comments on the state of friends in my life). In fact, my new partner Michael for the class is assigned to help me string my bow at the beginning of each session. I let him and his gorgeous smile help me more than I needed the first day of class...

But next class, I may not be pretending. I think my arms are planning a coup... I've kept this a secret from my back, but it has intelligence everywhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Outlier: Entrepreneurship

I had the opportunity to attend an entrepreneurship panel this week, and it was fascinating. They had three current MBA students on the panel, who had all started one or more successful businesses.

One started a hedge fund and managed a billion dollar portfolio by age 25, and then he got tired of that, sold it, and started a company in Brazil doing the same kind of thing these guys do, although that's not his company. They give out paper hangers for free to dry cleaning companies, paid for by advertising on the hangers. It's green, saves the dry cleaners money, and the advertisers know the item will be looked at in the person's closet for weeks.

The other guy started a resale consumer goods company in the UK selling through eBay and Amazon and his own website. Then he got tired of that, and started something else, I've forgotten what.

The last guy started his first company while he was in college, trying to make beer money. He and his friends bought domain names in English that translated to common things in India, then resold them. Domain squatting, I think that's called. It worked when he did it because the Internet and globalization was new, but he got out of that because, well, there are only so many domain names. So then he started flipping houses in Chicago, and morphed into real estate.

And all these guys are still in their 20s! It's quite humbling. I liked hearing their life stories, although I was a little disappointed none of the businesses they started were technical in nature. It's a bit different to start a technology/engineering type company than to start selling things on eBay. But in the end, hey, if it makes you money what does it matter.

My favorite part was the questions and the answers. A lot of the things they said, I already knew.
1) It takes incredible dedication and focus to start a company - it's a high risk, high reward proposition, not for the weak of heart or mind.
2) You have to be really cheap. Nickel and dime every expense to minimize absolutely every cost. The only thing which you should not skimp on is people - if you have partners, pay them what they are worth. Pay them more than what they think they are worth, even. It's worth it to have good people who won't walk out on you.
3) It's not the idea that matters. Ideas are easy, every person who thinks can come up with ten company ideas a day. It's picking the right one that matters, and the execution. Someone asked the panel how they protect their ideas, and if they worry about someone stealing it. One reply particularly struck me: don't worry, somebody already has your idea, and you probably stole it from someone else. There are very few things nobody has thought of. And if they can execute it better than you can, then they are the ones who should be doing it, not you. And if you can execute better, then you shouldn't be worried.
4 5) It takes a certain kind of person to be an entrepreneur. It runs in the blood, you might say. These kind of people have the ability to focus to the exclusion of all else, a drive to be creative and innovate. They can't stand the idea of an industry job. Some just love the process of starting the company, and will work in any field. Some are motivated by the idea and could care less about the process. But all of them are passionate.

This entrepreneurship thing runs in my blood, for better or worse. I kind of knew this in college, but it has really solidified in grad school. I am one of those people who thinks of company ideas by the handful. I can't think of a single person I'd rather work for than myself. I don't mind not having job security in the form of a company salary. I know my mind, my skills and my ideas are security enough - I know I'm good enough to make a living, if not a fortune under the right circumstances.

I say all this because I know it isn't the typical direction a grad student takes. Most engineering students I knew in undergrad took jobs in industry after completion of the bachelor's. A small percentage went to grad school, like I did. Of the few people I know personally who went to grad school, a master's is all they were going for. Either an MBA to help to get a job in engineering management, or rarely an M.S. to get a better salary in an industry job. Only one person I know from undergrad is going for a PhD - and he only decided that because his industry job went away with the economy.

So here I am, going for the PhD. Why? I know it's strange to complete a PhD and not be interested in academia. I stayed for a PhD because it is exciting to me to work on a problem that nobody has solved. In classes, you solve problems, but they are problems with known solutions. How much more valuable to find an interesting, relevant area of research and make a significant contribution. Also, having a PhD from here will give me superb credentials - I can essentially prove myself by just writing my name.

So, surprise, surprise, I'm an outlier in my career path. I want to start my own company. Someday soon, before I leave this school. My favorite part of being here at World's Best School is that I am surrounded by brilliant people in all different fields, the cliche melting pots of minds, ideas, and money. Standing at the front end of an intractable problem is a scary place to be for most, but I do it every day in research. Not so different than standing at the front end of a company that isn't reality yet.

For some outliers like me, it's not scary - it's inspiring.


Well, so my best guess is I didn't account enough for the significant stress concentrations that occur at discontinuities in force.

Also, that boundary conditions are more likely in reality to be towards simply supported than fixed.

Bugger - my poor heater tried its best...

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I am really satisfied with my school life as a grad student - I take challenging classes that are useful for what I am interested in, I have an awesome advisor, and I feel like my project is relevant and important. I get along fantastically with my labmates and other colleagues, and I realize I am really fortunate to have all these things in my academic life going so well. (With the exception of the blasted broken heater issue).

But I am, if I stop long enough to think about it, lonely. I can keep myself busy with school and my own projects and hobbies, so I'm never bored. But I can't fix lonely, I can only ignore it.

I have a great group at work - my labmates, and other grad students in mechanical engineering. I can always count on lunch invites, chats in the hallway, people to grab pizza and study with, and somebody to sit next to me in class. I also have a set of people I enjoy in the dorm - other officers who say hi when they see me, other volunteers to banter with while we prepare meals. I even have friends I see at bible study - once a week friends with whom to sing and study biblical topics.

So I am blessed, and I have more than enough people around me to satisfy my introverted personality. So I feel almost guilty for being lonely.

But what I am missing is the kind of friend you can call up at any hour, the ones you can count on when you are upset. I had these friends in undergrad, and some of my favorite memories are with them: random nights watching crappy reality TV, spur-of-the-moment road trips. Occasionally there would be episodes of somebody crying on the bathroom floor, or someone holding an impromptu ice cream binge after a breakup. But if I was ever upset, I knew I could call. And if they needed me, they knew I'd be there as soon as I could.

One of the guys at school has a girlfriend who recently got a cortisone shot in her back. He took off a few days to take care of her - bringing her home from the hospital, making sure she ate (well, he ordered in fast food instead of cooking, but hey whatever works....), sitting through chick flicks with her while she recovered. If I ever needed somebody to take care of me like that, I don't know who I'd call. You don't ask people from work to do that, (in fact being that close to people you work with can backfire). It takes a different kind of friend, and I'm not sure how I go about finding that kind.

I think I partly shoot myself in the foot because I am so independent; I so rarely need to be taken care of I don't even think about how valuable those kinds of people are. So this logical engineer needs to remember not to neglect her social life. That, or just avoid ever needing to go to the hospital...

Where do your "anytime, anywhere" friends come from, internet?

London Wrap-up II

To continue my list of adventures in London:

- Saw some amazing architecture: Tower Bridge, Lloyd's of London (the inside out building), London Wall, London bridge, The Gherkin glass building, and too many churches and government buildings and palaces to count. London is not a very tall city, but it is rich with history.

- Took the "Jack the Ripper" tour, which goes past the sites of Jack's murders, and stops at other places with sordid stories. London has had a great many hangings, plagues, beheadings, and general pestilence. One spot in particular I thought was cool is a spot on the bank of the Thames that runs into the Tower of London. They call it Dead Man's Hole, because the currents of the river and architecture of the pool all conspire to wash people in there and keep them stuck. They pull out an average of 50 bodies a year from that spot.

- Poked my nose around an old bookstore, and bought a book to read in my spare time. No internet in the cheap hostel, you know, so I have to have something to pass odd hours! I especially liked the children's section, believe it or not, they had all these darling illustrated children's books. Including some I read when I was a child - I think sadly my best-read genre is children's books. I read voraciously as a kid, then lost the time when I started college.

- Had lunch at The Porcupine, which is a very old restaurant that used to be a haven and lodge for the FreeMasons. They specialized in "pies" which I thought meant dessert, but forgot that I was in England. They make all their own meat pies, like shepard's pot pie. There was even a cornish game hen pie, and a kidney and onion pie. I passed on the kidneys...

- Went to see the new Underworld movie. The movie theaters work a little differently than ours - there were about four or five movie theaters in close proximity, so my labmate and I wandered around to see what each was playing. It turns out that instead of them all playing the same movies, each one was quite small and only played a few, with no overlap between theaters. So you go to the movie theater that plays what you want to see, instead of going to the theater and seeing what's on. Kinda cool, and efficient (if all the cinemas are close to begin with, I suppose). A little odd to see only two or three movie on the queue, though...

- On the walking tour, we went past Westminster Abbey and the church display board outside said that they had "Evensong" every evening. I asked about it, and it turns out this is a nightly church choir service. I really wanted to go, so my labmate dragged himself along. We went to see the soccer stadium because he wanted to, so really it was only fair. :) Okay, maybe a church service isn't quite on the same order. In any case, we showed up right on time and the doors were locked! We couldn't find a way in. I was quite dissapointed, so I suggested we just walk around the church and then head home. But it turns out the entrance was on the backside - yay! So we got to go after all. It was gorgeous - the church is incredible, and the choir music was excellent. The effect of those beautiful Latin harmonies in that old church filled with art was just inspiring.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Well, in the words of Dr. Isis, I am being "bent over by science."

I went to run some experiments on my equipment yesterday, (equipment that I designed and built), and one of my two heaters was not working. The very expensive, fancy heater that is one of the key innovations in the machine. Did I mention expensive? That I've broken once before? The first time I broke one was unexpected, my advisor was very understanding that these things do happen during research, and I changed my design to account for the reason it broke.

But this time when I saw my data going screwy, I just had a sinking feeling. I checked all my wiring, everything was good. I opened up the machine and took out the heater... and it was shattered. Blast.

The worst part to me as a scientist is I have no idea why it broke. It can't be the same reason it broke last time, because I changed my design, unless of course I was wrong last time about the reason it broke. Tomorrow I am going to double-check my calculations for some design decisions I made, and make sure I didn't design something else stupidly. I sent in a note to my supplier to ask for a quote for a new one, so I can get it replaced as soon as I can. But I don't want to replace it unless I know why the damn thing broke, or it'll just break again.

And I'm not really sure what I'm going to tell my advisor at our next meeting (which happens to be one of the one-on-one variety... of course...). The truth, I guess, along with my calculations that I'm double checking, and any guesses I have as to why.

Crimeny. Did I forget to tell my equipment I am trying to graduate?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Inflection Point

Weekly lab meeting with my advisor was today, and in the course of discussion my advisor made the comment to the group that I am "at an inflection point." And I have been thinking about that, and I think he is exactly correct - that describes this point in my career nearly perfectly.

The trip to Singapore marked the 10th anniversary of the Singapore/World's Best School partnership, and also the official end to the program. This means that each subdivision of the partnership has to plan its end-game, what it wants to accomplish as the final contribution to their respective fields.

In my lab, last summer a large group of students undertook a major project we dubbed "microfactory," or ufac for short (mu-fak, sounds slightly dirty but it's not, just geeky - mu is the symbol for micro). Ufac had some very specific goals we were trying to reach over the course of three months in the summer. We almost made it, we were so close but ran out of time before classes started up again.

I am getting to the point, here, hang with me.

Point 1
So my advisor has decided that our lab's end-game is going to be Ufac, Part II. So there's the first inflection point I've been thinking about - the focus of the lab is now going to streamline down to Ufac II as we use up the rest of our money and look toward the future. I am really excited about this - my research fits perfectly with this project, and I was really dissapointed last summer when we didn't quite reach our goals. I think if we can get it to work it will be a major contribution to my field, the culmination of 10 years of knowledge gathering.

Point 2
The only problem is that most of the students from last summer are trying to graduate, and won't be around for Ufac II. So the second change going on around here is a bit of reorganization in personnel. Normal weekly meetings with my advisor have always been his two PhD students and myself. But since they are now both in the home stretch to graduating, he will be meeting with them one-on-one. I will be meeting instead with the newly formed Ufac II group - which is myself and the only other two students from last summer who will be around. That will be biweekly, and I'll meet one-on-one with my advisor on the inbetween weeks.

Point 3
This one-on-one in the inbetween weeks is because I am also trying to graduate - although only with my Master's, and I'll be staying for a PhD. I actually turned in the first half of my thesis to my advisor today - yay! - for him to review and return to me with comments. I aim to be done and have the thing signed by the end of February.

Point 4
Which is good because in May I am taking the qualifying exams to be admitted into the PhD program. This is a high stress operation, requiring an average of three months to study. I don't want to be worrying about the Master's thesis while trying to study for these things, and I need to start studying... well, yesterday.

Point 5
And then as soon as I finish with quals, I have to decide what I want to do for my PhD. I've just started thinking about this recently, trying to figure out how the Ufac II project might lead into a PhD research topic. It's odd to focus on the long-term planning, since I've been spending the last year and a half working on my master's topic. But hey, that's why I'm calling it an inflection point.

So to sum up this lengthy post: I am currently changing all at once the focus of my research, the people I work and meet with, and my degree status. I need to begin to study for qualifiers, and begin to think about long-term PhD plans.

Quite an inflection point. I'm crossing my fingers that I'm at the local minimum, and it's all up from here... :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unexpected Surprise

I serve on the government of the graduate dormitory where I live - I am the equivalent of an undergrad RA (residential assistant), except for graduate students. This is mostly a social or facilitator role; my job is to know everybody, foster community, and use money I am given to throw dinners, study breaks, and organize the occasional outing for my residents. I love doing this, as it indulges just enough of my outgoing side while still letting me retreat at the end of the day to my own room. I have become friends with the other members of government over the year I've been doing this, and so I end up volunteering a lot to help with other dorm events. I also have a selfish side - the events we throw almost always include free food (and good stuff, too, not just pizza), and I have learned that the volunteers get to eat as much as they want beforehand if they help prepare the food.

So we serve brunch twice a month, and if I make pancakes I get to eat however many I want before the long lines show up. Yum, strawberry ones! And once a week is coffee and dessert hour, and I get to steal a slice of cheesecake if I chop pineapple and apples and bananas. Last night we had a one-time event, "Chocolate Feast." Well you know I'm going to volunteer to help for that one. We had boxes and boxes of Godiva chocolates, a huge chocolate fondue fountain, cakes and cookies and rich creamy hot chocolate... oh, yum. Of course we also had lots of fruit, which is what I helped chop and peel and prepare. My specialty is pineapples - nobody else likes to do those, for some reason.

In any case, it was sublime. I got to pick several Godiva chocolates, and sip my dark hot chocolate in peace. Then at opening time everybody showed up and surrounded the fondue fountain, and in order to conserve resources we could only let people have one Godiva chocolate and one piece of gourmet cake.

But I digress.

The other half of my office's responsibility is to go to monthly house meetings. These are generally painless and only 45 minutes long, as opposed to student government meetings in undergrad which could easily last two hours (mostly of arguing, if the law students showed up). Tonight we had an unexpected item on the agenda: appreciation gifts. I was pleased to see some of the hardest working officers be recognized with gift cards, and clapped politely for all the nominees.

And then they called my name! I was floored, I didn't think I was doing anything above and beyond my position. But I got a nice little speech about me before I got my award, saying I did a great job involving my residents, contributing new ideas, and giving extra of my time to volunteer.

It was absolutely lovely to be recognized for something I enjoy doing, even more so because it was unexpected. If only there were more such awards for being social and eating macaroons...

London Wrap-Up I

The flight to London was uneventful - which is to say, wonderful! My luggage arrived with me, there were no delays or reroutes through other countries, and I had two seats all to myself. One other labmate also had the time and interest in stopping through London on the way back from Singapore, so we took on the adventure together. This is going to read like a "Dear Diary" but you, internet, will just have to deal. I want to remember things later. As in, after next week. I forget fast. :)

- We stayed in a hostel for four nights, here in fact. It's in central London, which is handy, and it's a converted jail, so major cool points for that. It's also really cheap: $185 for two people for four nights. In fact, we didn't even choose the cheapest option: we had an eight-bed room instead of ten or twelve, and we had our own shower and bathroom in the room instead of common showers. I have never stayed in a hostel before, but I really enjoyed it. There were young people from all over staying there - I didn't see anybody over 30, and I heard many, many languages being spoken. Which makes sense, I suppose, because anybody over 30 is not going to put up with bunk beds and toast and cereal in a cafeteria for breakfast. You get sheets upon check-in to make your bed with, and you rent a towel for 1 pound (which you keep until you either check out, or break down and want a clean one). There's a bar in the basement, maps in the lobby, and really, what more do you want?

There were never the same people twice in our eight-bed room for the four nights we stayed. Our room was co-ed, because my labmate and I booked our room together. So it was a little strange one morning to wake up and find two new boys sleeping on either side of me, that had come in late the night before... Even though the room had its own bathroom and shower, the bathroom was tiny - the same size as the bathroom and showers I have used in RVs before. I tried taking a shower in there the second day, and I couldn't even wash my hair without hitting my elbows, then I tried to towel off and nearly took out the sink. So I ended up using the common showers after all, which are like camping showers - nice and large, but also mixed gender. Ah well, nobody in that hostel is ever going to see me again, so what do I care?

- The first day we got there it was raining, but the second day was sunny so we went on a free walking tour of London. Our guide did an excellent job, and I really liked being able to walk through the sites instead of driving by on a bus. On the other sunny day, we also did a lot of walking on our own. All in all, we saw the Constitution Arch, Buckingham Palace, Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, Horse Guards Parade, the Mall, the changing of the Guard, Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, and of course Big Ben. Nearly everything, I think! I was glad my shoes were comfortable...

- Stood in line at the student's half-price ticket booth for same day musical tickers, and scored 18.50 pound tickets to Wicked. Yay! I really wanted either Wicked or Chicago. We got nosebleed seats, of course, but it was a Tuesday night so the theater was lightly populated. You better believe when the lights dimmed we moved up by one or three or twenty rows... actually ended up with pretty good seats. The cast was incredible, and the story was excellent. The lead singers just had effortless voices. I'm a bit of a singer myself, and I so envy and enjoy when other singers can make their voice their instrument to do whatever they want. I hummed the songs all the way home, which I think my labmate did not appreciate. But oh well - 'cause IIIIIIIII'm defy-----ing gra--vity!