Monday, March 30, 2009

Experimental Error

Today I was very excited to come into work, because my To-Do list contained one very important item: crank out a run of parts. And if I am lucky, this will turn out to be the last set of parts I need to finish my thesis!

So I carefully assembled the blanks I made last week with which to make my parts, gathered my lab notebook and my favorite pen, and fired up all my equipment. I ran a couple of warm up parts, and spent the rest of the afternoon laying down some very hot manufacturing science.

The chiller hummed away, the air pressure from the wall remained steady and strong. My poor little ceramic pieces which are so prone to breakage stood up cleanly for every cycle. The little solenoid valves soldiered on, heating up a bit from the work but faithfully actuating the heat sink without a hitch. Every two minutes and fifty seconds, a new little part popped out and I loaded in the next blank. I gave everything the "blue glove treatment," as my advisor says (keeping everything fingerprint-free). Under my watchful eye, my stack of petri dishes full of parts grew beside me, balanced precariously on the laser cutter. Hey, I ran out of work space on the lab bench.

This had to be a manufacturing run, which means the whole set of parts had to be made consecutively and consistently. I had cleared my schedule so as to have no distractions.

But there was unfortunately a variable I never considered. It came into play when I was just about two-thirds of the way done. I realized that I was by myself in the lab, nobody else knew how to run the machine, and... I had to go to the bathroom.

Drat it all. Shouldn't have had the soda with lunch....

I made it for seven more parts, but shortly thereafter anyone watching would have witnessed the equipment operator running frantically down the hall toward ladies' room, yelling behind her "Nobody touch anything!"

The neat little note in my lab notebook between parts 58 and 59 reads simply - "Short break"

Overcoming Challenges

The lovely Candid Engineer of America is hosting the April Scientiae carnival this month. The theme is overcoming challenges - what adversity, gnarly problem, or stubborn obstacle have you dealt with?

In thinking over my career thus far, I must say that I have been mightily blessed. I anticipate that many of the other entries will focus on personal tragedies, and ways in which relationships in private life have caused havoc in the professional life. I have the utmost respect for those who have overcome such things, and I don't mean to detract from that, but I can't really relate. Nobody in my family has died, I do my very best to avoid tangled dramas, I've always been in good health. In fact, most of my problems have been of my own making. I know, I can see you all rolling your eyes - just wait, I can hear you thinking. :)

So instead of personal issues, I must say the toughest thing I've dealt with is managing the politics interfering with the technical. I was homeschooled all the way up through highschool, so I was the very definition of an independent worker. I transitioned smoothly into college classes, where I did my work quickly and brilliantly.

Then in undergrad I hit classes with group projects. And I discovered that there are STUPID PEOPLE out there. And I had to WORK with those people. And I hated it. I thought I did better work on my own, which was largely true. I thought I could get it done quicker myself, which I could.

But I also learned that it is the height of hubris to think you can't learn anything from other people. So I had to learn how to manage in a group, to find people's strengths and work to those. To delegate tasks for efficiency, but then trust your teammates without hovering.

And just when I thought I the whole working with stupid people groups thing down, I hit senior semester and the undergraduate capstone design class. This is soley a project class, in my case in the aero-astro engineering department, which is supposed to be the crowning jewel in your B.S. education. All the graduating class has to take it, about 40-odd people my semester, divided into two groups of 20-odd each.

And there I discovered that stupid and brilliant people alike create POLITICS. I had never tried to complete a highly technical, difficult engineering project while dealing with that many people. Right away the group of 20-odd had a leader, sub-leaders, and then in a Dilbert-like middle management expansion, sub-sub-leaders. So, hello power struggles. And of course there will be personality issues - this person can't get along with this one, this person takes offense to this one's suggestions. Add in some favoritism shown by the professor and teaching assistants, a healthy dose of miscommunication, and a topping of irritable sleep deprivation, and suddenly I could hardly find any trace of the original engineering problem we were supposed to be working on.

This situation strained everyone who was in the class, varying by the amount you had invested emotionally. Those with love interests or deep friendships with others in the class were especially hard hit, and it's a wonder at the end of the day that no bodies were buried out at the test flight strip. And at the end of it all, was it really that important? It was just a class, and yes it was a competition, but the original technical problem wasn't worth the political and personal quagmire it was.

And this lesson that the science gets lost in the politics has been reinforced over and over again since then - during internships where my work wasn't published because of internal politics, during graduate study where authorship on a paper can hinge on popularity, on student club governments where funding decisions are made based on friendships rather than merit.

So the hardest lesson I've had to learn is that in the real world, the politics is just as important, and perhaps more important, than the technical side. Would that life would be simple and logical, but it's not.

Last Meal

One of the cool things about being a grad student is the abundance of research studies going on all around.

I think all college campuses get those flyers about sleep studies - recruiting volunteers to record how long they sleep, sleep less, or sleep more, come in overnight to be monitored while sleeping, hand over your firstborn, whatever the research requires. My campus has these in abundance, papered everywhere. Not so much the "you sleep too much" kind. Mostly of the "we want to study you because we CAN'T BELIEVE YOU ARE STILL ALIVE with the amount of sleep deprivation" variety.

But I think graduate-heavy and medical-heavy schools in particular have a cooler variety of research studies recruiting volunteers. If I see one that looks interesting and pays enough to be worth my time, I'll rip off the contact info and volunteer.

I trained on the next generation simulator intended for NASA astronauts to use to learn and practice how to run the manipulator arms on the space station. It was a bummer because there were two joysticks and hand control sets, with the dominant ones for the right hand. I generally choose to be left handed. I asked if I could switch the controls, but I was told that since on the space station they are, um, BOLTED DOWN, I couldn't really be moving those around. However it turns out I am really good at inspecting nose cone tiles, and maneuvering space-walking astronauts around on the end of the arm. I am not so good at moving tools around. Hey, if you've got to lose something, better it's not the astronaut, right? By the end of the study I had earned the highest grade of achievement that the simulator awards - whatever that means. I don't really think "Master Flight Controller" is gonna earn me any points at NASA....

I did a short, two hour study on hand-eye coordination and depth perception. I had to thread needles with one eye closed, stare at checkered grids, and other slightly dizzying tasks. They wanted me for this study because just like I'm almost even between dominant right and left hands, I'm also almost even in which eye is dominant. Remember the archery? I'd do the eye-dominance tests repeated times, and half the time get the right eye and half the time get the left.

And then last year I saw an advertisement for a really well-paying, interesting looking medical study. It turns out there is a six week screening procedure. I made it through the screening procedure, and they handed me a check for an amount half my monthly stipend just for getting through that!

The reason it pays so well is that it's long - two years. Of course, since I'm chained to my lab chair getting a PhD, I know I'll be around that long. The study centers around food - they provide food for you to eat for the first month of the study, and then after that you can eat whatever you want, they just want you to write it down. And come in once a month for a blood draw.

So the month of provided food starts tomorrow morning, and lasts through April.

And what was I doing tonight? Making a batch of brownies, of course. Of which I had four helpings. :)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Studying Is As Studying Goes

I am taking the qualifying exams to get into the PhD program here at World's Best School in May. End of May, let's get that straight. I don't want to know how many weeks away that is, it scares me how fast it's coming up.

Qualifying exams here are viewed as life- and career-ending by the students studying for them, and by those who fail them. They are viewed as necessary and a rite of passage, and really not that hard, by those who have passed them.

I think it's all psychological, and I refuse to let it psyche me out.

It is traditional that the students studying for the exams form study groups for each of the topics they choose to be examined over. This is an excellent idea, and this is the second week that I have met with my study groups. I have three exam topics, but one topic there are only three of us, and one is not available for study-grouping, so I only have two study groups. Here is about how they go.

Study Group #1 - Control Systems

super-efficient super-awesome foreign student, email one week beforehand: okay, people, we're meeting this day at this time in this room, please prepare problems A-F for discussion.

me, day before just now looking at this: um, shoot guys, I don't have problems A-F. can somebody send them to me?

me, day of: painstakingly working through problems with my creaky old brain trying to recall methods from classes a year ago, carefully writing solutions in blue ink on classic green engineering paper. I make it through A-C (ish) before I get stuck. Do my best on D-E, give up on F. Hope for help during meeting.

super-efficient student calling meeting to order: okay, we are going to work through these like it was the oral exam. would someone like to begin on the board?

me, eagerly volunteering first because I am only confident on the first problems anyway: alrighty, given a complicated system of masses, springs, dampers, magnet actuators, and a pump with bellows, here is my block diagram. here is how I simplified it (diagramming furiously across the board) and here is my answer (triumphant circle).

study group: um, yeah, obviously. go on.

me, a bit deflated: okay, well, here is how I did problem B. same as you got? okay. shall I do problem C?

study group: well, we thought problem C was so straightforward as to be trivial. so we would like to skip it.

me, putting about six pages of my work on problem C back into binder: oh

study group: but would you like to continue with problem D?

me: well, here is how I started (write three lines and a block diagram) and now I'm stuck on .....

other grad student, taking up fresh piece of chalk: actually that's all wrong, now here is how it goes (trying to fix my diagram, ending up erasing and starting again)

me: sits down and tries to understand fast enough to keep up for the rest of the meeting

Study Group #2 - Manufacturing

me, being on top of things three days before in an email: hey guys! just as a reminder, we're on for studying this week

other guys: crickets

me, excited because this is my good subject: I know we're planning to go over topic X this week, and I found this really helpful summary of topic X, so here you go!

other guy 1: I'm out of town

other guy 2: I can't make it this week

other guy 3: what is topic X?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I had a horrible thought this past weekend. If the lab were to flood, and all the circuits on my machine fry... Or if someone was to realize the priceless value (well, I guess that's subjective) of the machine I've been slaving away on for the past year and a half, and break down the door and cart it away... Or if *gasp* something major were to break and the machine could no longer run...!!!

If any of those things were to happen, I HAVE NO VIDEO.

My Master's thesis is on the design, building, and testing of a machine that makes little plastic chips with tiny patterns on them. (Another post on that a different day, I think).

I have been making my little plastic chips since last June - almost a year - yikes! I have bins full of stacked petri dishes with parts. I have data coming out my ears, and enough profilometer measurements to choke a horse. I have detailed pictures of my machine and all its constituent parts.

But I have no video of it running and making a part.

So if the end of the world arrived and the earth was wiped clean - and then, of course, put back in time for the next conference I'm presenting at - there is the remote possibility that no one would believe my machine ran as I said it did. I can just imagine presenting data from a run of 100 parts, declaring that I made them all in two minutes apiece (which is a major claim), and some commenter from the audience goes "Are you sure? You didn't just sit there with a chisel and chip out the exact same pattern in 100 parts? Over spring break? For fun?"

And I couldn't refute it. Because, you know, I do own a set of very small chisels.

So this morning I decided to rectify this situation. I ran a few parts to warm up the machine first. (Technically it doesn't need a warm up period, but that goes against my practical engineering bent... people need to stretch before they work hard, right? I should give my machine the same treatment, I rationalize. Or maybe I just like watching it pop out pretty little parts.)

Then I whipped out the lab video camera, and taped the making of one part. Loading in the blank, starting the program, watching the heating, squashing, and cooling steps execute. Then, removing the demolded part at the end. Taped the making of several parts, actually. Do you know how hard it is to load in a blank and run a cycle with one hand (clean room gloves and tweezer required for loading) while taping said operations with the other? If I am watching myself load in the blank, I'm liable to be aiming at the wrong thing with the camera. If I watch the camera, I tend to drop the part with my tweezers, which also does not look good on tape. And trying to hold steady for a 90 second process? Don't get me started.

I got all of this coordinated on the third run, and everything was going well. I didn't make a peep throughout the video, so the only sound was the humming various lab equipment.

I had 27 seconds left in the cycle to tape. And then - "F**k this s***t!"

Say WHAT? One of the new grad students across the room had apparently had enough of his experiment not working, and chose that moment to express himself in this colorful manner. Loudly.


Part #4 coming up....

Friday, March 20, 2009

Straight On

The last day of the archery class I've been taking was last Thursday. And I couldn't announce this randomly in lab because I'd look like a jerk, but here on the internets -

I kicked butt!

We had two competitions during class. For the first competition, you shoot seven rounds, with each round further back from the target. The last round was the distance of a full basketball court away from the targets. The winner is the one with the highest score for the seventh round.

The first few targets were easy - we were close enough I could see the target clearly, and I could correct if I was off.

On the fourth round, the targets started getting a little fuzzy and I couldn't see where my arrows landed on the target.

So imagine my surprise when I walked to the target to retrieve my arrows, only to find I had made a bulls-eye! And, sticking out of the back of that arrow was my next arrow, which split the first one for a second bulls-eye!

W00t! The teacher said that was the first time she had seen an arrow split on the bulls-eye in fourteen years of teaching. Technically, you are supposed to use the same arrows for all rounds, but she made an exception for this case so I could get a new arrow...

By the seventh round of that competition, all I could see was the yellow spot in the middle of the red target, and the only way I could tell I hit the target was by the "thwack" sound. It was rather entertaining, actually, holding my breath as I walked toward the target, watching the little feathers come into focus...

And I won! I had the best score on the last round. My best arrow was a nine - only one ring off the bulls-eye. Actually, when I shot that particular arrow, I heard somebody mumble with a laugh from down the line: "she must cheat..." so I knew it had to have been a good one! :)

The second competition we ran was a one-arrow, winner-take all round. Standing from a close distance, whoever shot the best with one arrow won.

Well that's just too easy. I could see both the target AND my arrows.

I was the only one to make a bulls-eye.

The teacher dismissed us with a speech congratulating us, and noted that the last winner-take all round was shot from the same distance we started at on the very first day of class. That was pretty neat - we all remembered how difficult it was just to hit the target on the first day, and now I considered it easy to make a ten.

My arms and back have become so much stronger; I notice it in my posture (and in the sore muscles the next day, ahem). I have calluses on the insides of my fingers, and my fingers on the hand that holds the string have become stronger. My ring finger especially is now fatter on the left hand than on the right - a bit strange. I never thought about the fact that the poor little ring finger never got much exercise before this class!

So yay for learning new things! There is an archery club on campus, so I hope to go over and continue to improve. As the teacher said during her closing speech, you readers can all say "you knew me when..."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

RA Interviews II

I have finished all of my interviews, follow-up interviews, and final-round interviews for an RA position next year. Whew! Each dorm has their own process and their own style for picking an RA, but in general most dorms have two or three rounds of cuts - the shuffling through of applications nets the first round of interviews, then if you make it past the first interview you meet the entire student population of the hall, and then if you make it through the students you meet the housemasters. I have made it through all three rounds at three different places, so I am confident I will get an offer from somewhere out of all that.

The way the next part works is that the dorms all turn in their top picks for RAs to a central body, which runs through an algorithm and matches people up. I inquired about whether I get to put in my preferences - which of the three short lists I am on I would prefer.

And I got back the rather surprising answer that there is no system for that - these positions are so competitive that it is highly unusual more than one or maybe two places would want any particular RA. They do ask the potential RAs if there is anywhere they would NOT want to work, but in my case I would take any offer - I liked all the places I interviewed.

And it's tough because at the last-round interviews I would be asked, basically, "How serious are you about this job?" or some variant thereof. They wanted to suss out if they were my top pick. That's a tough one to answer, because I don't want to rule out any possibility, but of course not every dorm can be your first choice in your head. I settled on some variant of "Well, I have really enjoyed getting to know your students, I am excited about the possibility, and I wouldn't be here at the last round if I wasn't interested in the position."

But then I got to thinking - if I had the choice, where would I go? Only considering the three I am most confident I would get an offer from, to make it easier. One of the dorms has an absolutely gorgeous apartment for the RA, with a kitchen, living room, study/guest room, and bedroom with attached bathroom. After living in my one-room dorm for the past two years, that's my definition of luxury. I already know one of the other RAs, who put in a good word for me with the housemasters, and I would love working with him. But at this dorm, I barely squeaked by into the last round of interviews, and I just felt uncomfortable with the housemasters. It just didn't feel like as good a fit with the students, either. They play lots of videogames, which I know nothing about, they have a higher percentage of greek frat/sorority students, which I also know nothing about.

At the second dorm, I had a fantastic time with the housemasters. We bonded over similar research interests, talked about the art in their apartment that I recognized, were on the same page about how to approach student life. The apartments for RAs were lovely, with a bedroom, living room, and kitchenette. And I enjoyed the students - a bit odd, but then I like quirky kids.

And at the third dorm, I absolutely loved the students. They are all hands-on, they build projects all the time, they were friendly and laughed at all my jokes and stories. They are known for a high percentage of mental problems, but hey - I have mental problems too. That just means we're brilliant. :) But the building is crappy. It's one of the oldest buildings on campus. The asbestos has been cleaned out of the RA rooms, thankfully, but still you get what you get. However at this dorm you can modify your room however you want - ability to customize helps offset crappy room a little bit.

So the question is - keeping in mind the fact that the student population changes every year, and this would be at least a three year job - would I rather go with a fantastic apartment? Or a crappy room, and current students I love? Or the middle road on both counts?

Thank goodness I'll only get one job offer - it would be hard to choose...

Monday, March 16, 2009


You may recall that a while ago I was nominated for a fellowship, and for that fellowship I had to provide things such as a research proposal, letters of recommendation, a transcript, and a curriculum vitae. All of those things I had ready (as I think most graduate students do, because it's surprising how often you need a one-page summary of your research). Except the CV. I have a resume, which I update every time I need it (at least once a year, for career fair, and inbetween if necessary). But I have never had to give out a CV before that fellowship asked for it. Perhaps I'm moving up in the world.

I found myself at somewhat of a loss. I was running short on time, so I ended up turning in basically an expanded version of my resume. But I vowed I would do better next time around.

So now I am being nominated for another fellowship, one for woman graduate students. Yay for extra scholarships available to "minority groups" - which I would be remiss not to take full advantage of. Again, this requires much of the same paperwork.

And again, I am back to the CV.

I did better this time - I added in my conference papers and technical presentations, relevant coursework. I deleted the silly "Objectives" section. But it's still basically an expanded resume. Is this what it's supposed to be, or am I missing the point? I have a feeling a good chunk of Googling how-to-write-CV would help, but I thought I'd ask the blogosphere if they know where to begin. Perhaps I need to go look if dear PhysioProf has a post on this...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Possibly the Nerdiest Thing I Have Ever Done

I live in a world of geeks, nerds, and people who know the difference between the two. I am at a school which attracts the edges of the spectrum - odd people and brilliant minds from all over the world. I have spent twenty minutes listening to a debate over whether matrices should be indexed beginning at 0 or 1. I have witnessed a guy propose to his girlfriend with a PowerPoint in the middle of the annual science fiction movie marathon (right between Gattaca and Sunshine), and stunningly she said yes. I see people walking down the halls barefoot between nitrogen tanks, and have been unsure whether they just like to go barefoot or whether they happened to forget their shoes in lab that day. I have seen five - FIVE - different versions of a Sudoku solver program, because people here can write the program to solve it faster than they could ACTUALLY solve it.

But I have reached a new level.

I was invited to a game night. I happily accepted, because I jump at chances to hang out with friends who do not spend their weekends at bars and clubs. I figured a good game of Texas Hold 'Em, maybe some old-school Monopoly. We did play cards for a while, but then someone suggested a game which I had never heard of. Apparently, though, this group plays the game fairly regularly, and it's a favorite. So, sure, why not learn something new?

One of the guys disappeared into his room, and came back with all the necessary props. We all sat in the middle of the floor, somebody ran a power cord over and plugged it into the wall, and suddenly I realized what I was looking at.

It's called Motherboard Jenga. The idea is that you start with the guts of a computer, the motherboard. You take turns using pliers or a soldering iron (also provided) to remove parts. The first person to kill the system loses.

Lord save us.

I don't get any hits off of Google, so my guess is it's a World's Best School original game. This game is played anytime one of the EE majors wants to clean out their stash of old computers. A simple memory fault doesn't count as killing the system. The key, I found, is to avoid disconnecting anything necessary for the cooling system, because if the cooling system isn't connected it triggers a shut down. Unless, of course, you have disconnected whatever it is that triggers the shut down.

I lost in the third round, but I'm not at all sure that was a bad thing.... I am torn between thinking this was quite possibly the coolest game I have ever played, and thinking that I have crossed some irreversable line.

So what say you, internet? Awesomeness, or what is WRONG with those people?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Suzie Homemaker

My alarm rang this morning at the standard time - 7 am. I rolled over, flopped one arm over to hit the snooze, and only managed to scatter my stack of tissues to the floor, where they drifted down to cover the book I fell asleep reading last night. Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert for the win!

But the magic of Saturday is that you get to let the standard time come and go. I went back to sleep, beautifully, and didn't get back up until nearly lunch. I spent all this afternoon getting my home in order. Well, home is a generous term. I live in a graduate dorm in a double suite, which means I have one room of my own attached to a bathroom and kitchenette I share with a roommate.

But you know what? It's my own place, and I like it to be in order. So I did the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, did the laundry, updated my finances, and cleaned off my desk. Then it was time to vacuum.

I borrowed out the vacuum from the front desk from the bored desk worker, and lugged it back to my room. The wheels on this one squeaked, so the whole floor heard me going by.... squee, squee, squee...

And it didn't work. It ran over the feathers on my floor (favorite down comforter has a hole from when I sat down with a wire stripper in my back pocket) and just spit them back out. The cracker crumbs just got minced into smaller pieces.

So I took out my red tool bag, grabbed my drill and sat down in the middle of the feathers and cracker crumbs. I am an expert in vacuum disassembly - I used to fix the vacuums in my undergrad dorm. I isolated the problem, removed the broken belt, and put everything back together. If it was my own vacuum, I would probably have a screw left over, but since it wasn't mine I made sure I put everything back.

I lugged the whole thing back downstairs (squee, squee, squee... shoulda hit that with some WD-40 while I had it open....). I handed it back to the desk worker, and then placed the offending belt on the counter.

"You're gonna need to order another one of these." I said. I heard a surprised laugh from behind me, and I turned around to find a group of three boys waiting in the lobby to go to dinner. "Only at World's Best School..." I head one of them say.

Apparently they'd never seen a girl in hot shorts returning a vacuum with repair instructions.

Friday, March 13, 2009

20-Something, 20-Everything

This happens to all of us. You are hanging out with a friend or group of friends, under simple ordinary circumstances. The conversation is mundane - how was your week, how is school, what are you doing this weekend, my isn't this dessert fabulous! Then somebody makes a comment that's a little personal - opens up just a little bit. Sometimes these things slip right by, but sometimes you suddenly find yourself twenty minutes later talking about life, love, the universe.

I went to a concert tonight with nine other friends, and at the end of the night we all went our separate ways. One other girl lives the same way as me, so we walked home together. We were talking about the concert - not impressed - and then about how we both try to take advantage of all the opportunities around us in grad school. Appreciating art at the museums, going to concerts, musicals. She goes to the ballet and the symphony, which I haven't tried yet. I take archery, she rock climbs.

I said that I really try to keep my life balanced between research and personal time - and then here's the little comment - because I tend to be unbalanced so easily. And when I'm unbalanced, I have really unhealthy coping habits.

And instead of letting that go by, she picked up and said YES! Me too. She said her parents wanted to come visit, but they were almost afraid to come for fear of stressing her out. My friend was confessing that her parents have a hard time understanding what she's going through, understanding why she is so stressed.

We are 20-somethings, trying to be 20-everythings. Classes, research, student clubs, volunteering, exercise, cooking. All are wonderful things, but you can't do it all. It's tough to find a balance between doing things you like, doing things you need to do, and doing too many things all together!

My mother told me one time (and I don't know if she even remembers this) that she realizes that my higher education experience must be very different from hers. My parents got married very young, and went through college and grad school already married. They didn't take advantage of as many opportunities as I have, and perhaps my mom wishes she did some of that. On the other hand I wish that I had the security she had, with a husband to lean on for support.

Either way, it was such a relief to hear recognition that yes, I'm doing things differently, and yes my way is kinda hard.

The whole out-of-the-blue therapy session with my friend on the way home went on for a good half hour, and it was so good to talk with someone else at the same stage in life with the same fears. Like blogging, but real - ha! It was good for me to remember that these 20-something years of mine don't have to be 20-everything, but they can be 20-anything I make of them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Supplier Helpfulness

I asked my supplier of pneumatic cylinders for a drawing or CAD model of the cylinder I currently use in my equipment. The reply:

Miss Outlier,

The DM1 cylinders are now on the external Mead website. You should be able to get the drawing from there. It won't have dimensions on it.


Ah yes. Because I was looking for a drawing with no dimensions.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Historically, my advisor has had a small lab. Usually only four or five students with various undergrad assistants as needed.

For the (almost) two years that I have been in the lab, it has been only three graduate students - myself as the n00b, and two PhD students. (We also have a research assistant who works with us, and has his own complement of grad students, but they answer to him first and not my advisor.) It has been quite useful for me to be able to observe two senior graduate students, and I am fortunate that they are both patient and open with me.

But now they are both planning to graduate this year - one this June, and the other by the end of the summer.

I have begun to take on some of the duties of a senior grad student this semester. The safety duties have fallen to me (lead contact with the safety guys, making sure all chemicals have proper handling and disposal and storage, attending the required safety training courses). My advisor asked me to take point on running lab tours during Open House weekend in April, where prospective grad students come around to tour the lab. I have gotten my own purchasing card, so I am in charge of ordering not only my own equipment but also consumables for the lab (petri dishs, lab gloves, chemicals, wipes, etc.).

It's also evident in the treatment I am getting at meetings with my advisor. I am getting less direct guidance (although I never needed handholding, really), more expectation of independent initiative and ideas. Last summer, when a bunch of grad students collaborated on a project called "Microfactory" I was one of the newest students, and the other two PhD students in my lab took more of an aggressive role in the project. This summer we are doing microfactory II, (UFac II as it is being called) and this time around I have a lot more responsibility.

I saw this coming after the first semester I was here - I knew that the older two would be graduating around the same time, and I viewed this time with apprehension. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was scared to think I would have to run the lab.

But now I feel ready for this. I know much better how things are run, what's in the random junk drawer, what's hidden on the bottom shelf in the back closet, and what that old piece of equipment under the tarp is used for (answer - nothing, it used to be useful but advisor for some unexplainable reason won't get rid of it). I've tried to learn as much as I can during these years, to know the proceedures for everything we do (although I still have no idea how to run the electroplating bath. It's green. It's acid. I stay away.). I feel like I can honestly handle being the most senior grad student.

But still - they are leaving me! And I haven't heard a peep about hiring new students. It won't be hard to hold down the fort if I'm the only one it it....

So I am curious - does the advisor usually discuss hiring new students with the current students? I know when I was looking at labs, I had the chance to talk to both of the PhD students. So I know if any new students were looking at the lab, I'd probably get to meet them.

I suspect that's what this Open House weekend in April is about - this is where it is likely interested students would show up. A-ha! Maybe that's why I am running the lab tour...

We shall see how things shake out in the fall. New students coming in so Miss Outlier doesn't feel like the new kid anymore? Or Miss Outlier receiving way more attention than she wants from an advisor with only one student?

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Geek Rocks Out

I bought these tickets almost a year ago. I was ready with my mouse the hour the tickets went on sale, and snagged a great seat through TicketMaster at a reasonable price. Until TicketMaster added seventeen fees and extra charges, of course. Sneaky tricksters.

I didn't care what the date was, because it was three of my favorite rock bands and the only tour date close to where I am. At the time the date was completely open, but... yeah, the calendar fills up. So instead of yesterday being like I planned - an all-afternoon and -night event where I would take time to dress and get ready, make my way to the location with plenty of time to park and wait in line, then enjoy the night away - it turned into "I've got class 8-9, a meeting 11-1, class 2-3, tutoring 3-5, at least an hour drive, and WHAT TIME DO DOORS OPEN AGAIN?" And, oh yeah, it's on a THURSDAY. I have class and work the next day. And how do I GET there?

You should have seen it, internet. I was up all hours Wednesday night, so I didn't get a shower Thursday morning before my 8am (!) class. So I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the lab bathroom (yes, the lab keeps a bathroom and small room for sleeping and a shower in the basement - it's been a lifesaver for almost every grad student at one point or another). I had mascara in my gym bag, and there ya go folks. That's as good as it was going to get.

I quickly determined that public transportation would take 168 minutes to get me to my destination, but since I couldn't leave until 5 and doors opened at 6, that was not going to fly. Fortunately I am in a program that lets me rent a car for $7 an hour, and there's a car right on campus that I can use. So I reserved that.

Toward the end of my tutoring session, I was glancing at the clock - trying to wrap up all the questions my young students had before I headed out. But then right as I was about to go at 5, the most adorable little boy with big brown eyes had a math question for me that he was clearly struggling with. I didn't have the heart to run out, so I sat and explained the concept. I took a moment to savor his big grin when he finally "got" the concept, then I bolted out the door.

I've made it to my rental car, and I'm on my way out of the garage - and I can't figure out how to swipe out. My card won't make the bar raise. Other cars are piling up behind me as I frantically hit the "help" button. Some parking attendant took pity on me and let me out, so I breathed a sigh of thanks. I considered my folded paper of Google Maps directions, and off I went.

And, oh yeah. It's RUSH HOUR. So, that estimate on time to destination? Not gonna happen.

I'm halfway to my destination, pondering the fact that the doors have already opened at the concert and I now have an hour until the start time, chewing my lip and trying to figure out how in the world to change the AC in a PRIUS, of all the confounded cars. When suddenly I realized that It Doesn't Matter. I have a reserved seat. The world will go on. Of all the things which I have to worry about, this should not be one of them.

So I do finally get to my concert, I pay the exorbitant price to park somewhat close to the event, and I make my way toward the doors only to be presented with a line that is approximately seventillion city blocks long. There was a moment when this intrepid concert goer's heart failed her, but I rallied. I recalled that there is general admission to this concert, and this line was probably for that. With fingers crossed inside my wool coat, I walked past all those people in line to the front. I was so grateful when it turned out I was right and I could get in at the front, because it would have been an awkward walk all the way to the back again...

And the concert was awesome. It mattered not one bit that I got there fifteen minutes late. There were two opening bands, both of which I love and played the songs I know. The main show was incredible. This was a "f***ing ROCK CONCERT" as the lead singer said, so naturally the girls were screaming, there were pyrotechnics, there were firework sparklers, and I joined everybody with my cigarette lighter for the power ballads. The lead guitar did all the appropriate head banging, the lead singer was dreamy, the drummer kept everything tight. They did one set out on a littler platform in the middle of the arena, more of a jam session. And the drum set ROTATED UP from underneath the platform. How cool!

The last song in the show was their most famous song and I have never seen a crowd so excited. Even I got caught up in all of it, and threw up my party horns with everybody else. For one night, I actually felt hardcore.

Rock on.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Spate of Good Things

Life is being a darling to me today. I just have to share!

1) My total of RA interview requests is now up to 11. This amount, I have been told, is extraordinary. Competition is quite high for these jobs (ahem, free rent) and most people only get two or three interviews. Most people who are current RAs had to apply for a year or two in a row before they got a spot. So, yeah, I'm flattered all these kiddoes think I'm such hot stuff. :)

I've had quite a few interviews, with quite a few left to go. I'm getting better at them as I go - which stories to tell, how to answer tougher questions on depression and alcohol policy. I am confident I will get at least two offers. I have my favorite dorm so far, of course, and I'm hoping for that one - but really, I am excited any way it turns out!

2) I got to see an NBA game on Sunday. Woot! It was SO close, within a few points the whole game. Home team lost, but it wasn't for lack of cheering...

3) I have finished screening and been accepted into a research medical study. Doesn't take much effort on my part, and it pays out five grand over two years. Got a $700 check just for making it through screening. Can we say vacation money? Have to keep from spending it on those Craftsman tools I've had my eye on...

4) I was nomianted for both President and Chair of the Halls for next year in my current dorm. Of course, I plan to be an RA next year, so that's not going to happen. But I was flattered I was nominated for both those things - it's nice to be appreciated!

5) I have only two more sets of experiments to go before I have collected all the data I will need for my thesis.

6) I shot my first round in archery above 40 (out of 50) yesterday. Bull's eye three times out of five arrows!

Monday, March 2, 2009


I am ashamed to say I came down with a case of jealousy today.

One of my colleagues (I think he started the same semester as I did in grad school) is also currently in the process of writing his thesis. We are both doing what we call "device" type theses - a thesis on the design, building, and testing of a physical device or piece of equipment. This is in contrast to people who do theory or simulation kinds of theses, which are heavy on equations and modeling and have a very small physical component. This means that we've had a lot to discuss, and there are a lot of parallels in the structure of our theses.

We started making our outlines at the same time - last fall. We both thought this was a good place to start - to lay out all your ideas before tackling the writing. My outline is about seven pages long, and I thought that was plenty. I got it approved, then in December I started writing. My colleague, on the other hand, decided to just keep expanding his outline with bullet points, until it pretty much became the thesis. So his outline was not done until January, and it's 90 pages long. It has no actual sentences, but every single fact and idea he wants to include is in there. He reserved space for every figure and reference he wants to add.

Then he has spent all of February making figures. Still no sentences. I teased him about this, because I am over halfway done writing. He is now up to 120 pages with only 4 pages of paragraph-style text.

And I am jealous now because he has just started writing this week, and it's a simple job because all the figures are done.

If he finishes before I do I will kill him.

Tisn't fair. I was trying to be done in January, and he was aiming for May. I should be done, dammit.