Wednesday, April 29, 2009


It has occurred to me lately even more than usual that I am a hands-on person. As such, I tend to view my world in a very physical way. This affects three things that I have been noticing - how I learn, how I interact with people, and how I cope with stress.


For me to really learn something, I need to touch it. I loved my mom's "manipulators" in the early grades - polygon puzzles, counting blocks, marble runs and erector sets. I hated circuits class in college, because I couldn't touch the electrons, and I couldn't understand how the current and voltage and op-amps and all those silly things worked. I finally got through it with an analogy somebody taught me - my dad, probably - that circuits are just garden hoses, with the current being the water flowing through and the water pressure being the voltage. Resistors are kinks in the hoses, capacitors are tanks, and so on. Things I could touch made sense to me, electrons floating around did not.

When I need to learn facts for class, or equations for a test, I can read it in the notes but it doesn't stick. If I write it down, it's a physical process and I remember it better. The absolute best way for me to remember something is to write it on my hand, or arm, or somewhere on my skin. It takes about two days to wash off through showers and handwashing, which is perfect. For two days every time I look at my hand I remember the fact, and by the time it washes off I've got it down. I've been doing this to study for my qualifying exams, and I have gotten some funny looks, but hey - I know what works for me! And really, in the grand scheme of things here, it barely registers on the weird scale... :)

Interacting with People

I don't like emotions, I can't touch those. I don't like drama and politics, I can't quantify those. I prefer to deal with logic, which works in my favor in a technical field. But I come off as insensitive sometimes, and I have to remember to be sympathetic to those around me.

Being so hands-on also makes me very aware of touching - I notice every time somebody brushes by, bumps me in the hall, taps me on the shoulder. I'm very protective of who I touch, because it means a lot to me, so I keep my distance from people at large. I only hug family and a few friends, I don't really cuddle, or hold hands, and those sappy teenagers on the subway drive me nuts. But this also means when somebody encourages me with an arm around the shoulders, or when my mom rubs my neck, I can truly take comfort in that.


My favorite thing to do to wind down is to do mindless physical work. Folding laundry at night, washing dishes. In college I was on a concrete canoe team, and in the evenings I would go sand on that canoe. Sanding was perfect for stress - it tired me out, it was productive, and I got to let my mind wander while I worked. Here in grad school, I have no canoe to sand, but I can take a walk along the river now that it's summer. I also like to cook, but that's not quite mindless... at least not if I want to eat it :)

I realize this post doesn't mean much to the internet population at large, but I have just been reminded lately that this quality is part of who I am. I think part of growing up is growing to understand who you are, and perhaps I may eventually get there after all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

From our speaker at a seminar today:

"And do you know WHY fishes don't have propellors? Because GOD KNEW there would be problems with the seals for the bearings!"

Referencing why some offshore wind turbines failed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sweet Memorial

As part of the annual Symposium a couple weeks ago, the department took the opportunity to dedicate a new conference room. One of the professors emeritus passed away recently, and the new conference room was named in his honor.

The fancy dinner at the end of the symposium was well-attended by alumni students of the lab, alumni professors of the lab, and of course students who then became professors and are now part of the lab. Friends of the honored professor came out to honor his memory, and at the end of the dinner a microphone was passed around for anyone who wanted to pay their respects.

And I have to say it was so sweet to hear how well-respected and well-remembered this man is. Those who were in contact with him all had stories to tell about how he inspired them, or mentored them along the way.

There were bits of humor, as well. The last student to receive his PhD under this professor before he retired took an exceptionally long time to graduate (which is saying something for a PhD, which can be a painful drawn-out process to begin with). This final student remembered being in the professor's office one day and having the professor tell him "You know, if you would just graduate I could retire!". Shortly thereafter he successfully defended.

Or the student who heard about the professor and "Gladys" quite frequently in the office water cooler talk, and assumed it to be the professor's wife. When he was invited to the professor's home for dinner and discovered that the professor's wife was Connie, he was so worried about disclosing the possible affair he could hardly make conversation. Later he learned that "Gladys" was the professor's computer, a nickname actually given to it by the wife because he spent so much time with it. The "other woman" was quite a novelty for that era... the confused student was much relieved.

I know I'm not going to be a professor, but I hope to be an inspiration like this man to people along my career. If nothing else, I hope I at least leave my friends with unforgettable stories!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

People Coming out of the Woodwork

I opened my door, took the elevator downstairs, and walked outside today.

It was incredible.

Mostly for the fact that this did not include any preliminary steps of putting on jacket, finding a scarf, and rounding up two matching gloves. I didn't squint against the wind, or turn my head away from the chill. I walked. Outside. Just stepped right out.

I feel free. I looked at the sun, and it made me happy. I watched the tulips open up, and the air smelled blue.

And people came out of the woodwork all around campus. Kids sat on building steps to eat lunch, there was a group tossing beanbags on the lawn. Every runner in the city - and there are a ton - was out along the river or on the roads.

There was a horse-drawn carriage puttering along beside Boston Common, girls were wearing sundresses and those large ridiculous bug-eyed sunglasses.

Yay spring!

Friday, April 24, 2009


I am already planning ahead to this summer when I can take vacation. It will be the perfect time for it - between my Master's and (hopefully) after I have been admitted to the PhD program. I am going to my family's annual reunion, of course, for about a week. I miss my family, especially my sister and brother who are away at college now. I am really looking forward to that trip, because I will also get to see some of my best friends from undergrad.

But that leaves me another week, and I want to take a vacation of my own as well, and this leads to much daydreaming while I should be being productive.

There is a group of guys in my lab that go to Vegas at least once or twice a year. They enjoy it, they have the money for it, and they always have a grand time. I always have wanted to go to Vegas, and the guys and I always kid around that I'll come along one of these trips.

So now they are planning a trip in August, which would be a perfect time. They are bringing their girlfriends so there will be other girls there besides me. And they are planning to make this trip a bit cheaper than their normal "devil-may-care" routine - which works for me, I don't need to stay in the king suites. And, to top it all off, they are going on the weekend that the annual Star Trek convention is in Vegas. It's a tailor made trip for me!

So how does one go about getting themselves invited? I mentioned in conversation that I was wanting to plan a vacation, and that I've always wanted to go to Vegas. I asked about how their trip planning was going, and made sure to say that everything they were planning sounded fantastic. I said that I was thinking about going to the annual Star Trek convention, and one guy said, "Well neat, that would be the same weekend we are going!" Then silence.

At this point I felt a little foolish with all the hint dropping, so I haven't brought it up again. I can't decide if they really just aren't getting the hints (which can happen, guys often miss cues like this that we women think are obvious), or if they really would just rather go by themselves. I don't want to push anymore if I'm only grudgingly wanted.

So I have decided I won't worry about it anymore. If it's not just going to fall into place, I'd rather go scuba diving.

But of course life can't be that easy - the problem with that one is I don't have anyone to go with, and diving really works better with a partner you know.

So I think the bottom line here is that I am no good at inviting myself on other people's trips, and I haven't made much of an effort to invite anyone else on the trip I want to go on.

No wonder I like doing things on my own!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ooh, wrong crowd for that one....

Thursday and Friday this week is the annual Symposium for my overall lab. My advisor-specific lab is part of a larger overall lab, with eight or so professors involved. Once a year they hold a symposium for two days, in which the professors each give talks as their "State-of-the-Union" address, or perhaps "State-of-the-Lab."

The first year I was here, this was fascinating. I got to absorb how each professors' work fit into the overall whole and the historical context (this is a lab that has been around for 32 years). I got to hear the professors' side of the story, to complement what I heard every day around the hallways and water cooler from the students. Each student makes a poster on their specific work, so I get to catch up on the wide variety of stuff going on that I never hear about.

This year I already knew the context and general theme of each professors' work inside the overall lab. So it was more interesting to me to hear the progress that had been made. Some professors still had slides that included examples from decades ago (I kid you not - one talk referenced a "personal mini-computer from Macintosh, $3500 estimated cost" with a picture of a boxy early-version Apple). And some professors have exciting, cutting edge stuff (ahem, the professor who just got tenure probably because of that cutting edge stuff).

My favorite talk was a very engaging speaker, who was passionate about his projects and included funny anecdotes. His talk included some work with meta-materials, some of which have a negative refractive index. This, he said, makes possible some very exotic possibilities. "Like Star Wars", he said, "with those cloaking technologies; I can never remember if it's Klingon or Vulcan."

And I looked around and at least four people were shaking their heads, because of course, it's Star TREK, not Star Wars, and it was quite obviously the Romulans.

The rest of his jokes were well-received, but you gotta have your nerd cred solidly in place before attempting the advanced sci-fi references... :)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Turn It In

I printed out my thesis today, all 124 pages of it. Turned it in is as a complete draft to the advisor, and set up a meeting with him Monday to go over his revisions. Assuming I did an okay job on it, advisor says we will have it signed by end of next week.

I can smell the finish line....

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pinch me, please

Because my life might be real.

To: Miss Outlier (ID#314159265),

This is to confirm that your order for a Cap and Gown has been processed.

You are now scheduled to walk at Commencement. You will receive an email when your regalia is available for pickup.

Order Date: Apr 20, 2009

Height: 5 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 12 stone :P

Degree: Master's

Thank you,

the Ones in Charge


I'm graduating!

Standing in My Own Way of Finishing

I had a grand plan for this weekend. I was going to pore over my thesis, I was going to finish (or nearly finish) the whole thing, and turn in a complete draft to the advisor this week. I was going to glue myself to my laptop, keep a snack nearby, and really truly apply myself. Because I know I can accomplish some incredible stuff when I am being productive.

But I couldn't make myself do it.

I don't know why. I keep thinking about all that I have to do BESIDES writing thesis - the last few experiments to answer nagging questions, studying for the test I have on Thursday, studying for quals, keeping up with Treasurer duties for the student club I'm an officer in, keeping up with hall councilor duties for my dorm floor. And I just feel overwhelmed. Plus my home had gone to pieces, with laundry everywhere and dishes in the sink, and flowers that needed re-potting, and floors and the bathroom that needed cleaning.

I feel like I have so much to do, that all I can really do is take a nap.

Does anybody else feel this way? When you have too many things on your to-do list, you just quit?

And so this weekend I slept, I did all the housework (yay clean clothes and clean home), I took a walk around downtown. The weather was gorgeous, and it just made me happy to breathe again.

I went to dinner with a bunch of girls tonight - we had a potluck, I brought sweet potatoes with pecans and coconut. Trust me, it's delicious.

And it's now 10pm on Sunday night, I feel fantastic, I'm sitting on clean sheets, and my window is thrown open to the gentle breeze. But I feel like I quit. Because I made absolutely zero progress on school or research-related things.

I do my very best to keep my life balanced, to take care of myself and to keep a healthy perspective on school. But that is all well and good AS LONG AS the school is going well. Is it still okay to take time to smell the roses when graduating is on the line?

So I psyched myself out of being productive this weekend. And I'm going to have to pay dearly for it this week to make up for it, I'm sure. I could have gotten a major chunk of work done, and I didn't, and it's completely my own fault for not being able to focus. And being productive almost certainly would have been more important than me having warm fuzzies over a clean home.

But shoot, I'm chomping on a brownie, it's hard to feel too bad. :)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Green Light

Last week at my meeting with my advisor, I showed the data from (what I thought was) my last set of experiments before I could finish my Master's thesis.

I had worked very hard to get all my data into pretty graphs, and I thought I had some very solid results.

I put up my slides, and spent a while discussing with my advisor the possible interpretations, and explaining some of the deficiencies I knew were in the data. In the end my advisor was very interested. He finally sat back in his chair, set down his pencil, and declared "Well this brings up some very interesting questions."

*face palm*

Oh, no.

So I had a list of new experiments I had to run. I was so discouraged, because I felt like I'd never be done with this thesis. Does advisor REALIZE I'm studying for qualifying exams at the same time here?? So the long shot was I had a night of feeling sorry for myself, but I picked myself up and busted my rear this week to get the other experiments done.

I stayed up way too late last night analyzing the data, formatting graphs, and organizing literally hundreds of measurements. At the end of the night (or, as it were, wee hours of the morning) I had many pretty figures for the thesis appendix. I took what I had learned from all my analysis and distilled it down into one, simple, holy grail plot. It concluded, pretty much, that my thesis was valid.

And then I dreamed last night that I went to my meeting with my advisor, and I couldn't find my holy grail plot. In my dream I thought, oh gees, I know I saved it, now what folder on my laptop did I put it in? And search as I might, I couldn't find it, and the folder trees were never-ending.... such a nerdy way to dream!

But the good news is that I indeed do have the plot, I did indeed show it at my meeting today, and I now have the green light to finish writing my thesis and graduate.


Now it's a race to see if I can do that without dropping the ball on all the OTHER things I'm supposed to be doing...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gainfully Employed as an RA

I got an RA position for next year!

The dorm I was assigned to was not what I was expecting at all - wasn't one of the three I was agonizing over in my head. In fact, this place is one of the interviews I was considering calling to cancel.

I know why I got the offer from this place. It's the only all-girls dorm on campus; it has two wings - in one wing, the RAs get an apartment with their own bathroom, and the RAs are often married and live there as a couple. In the other wing (where I will be) the bathrooms are communal, and the RA's quarters are not apartments but a single room the size of a dorm double.

So this wing requires that the RA be a single female for several reasons: it's a girl's dorm, boys aren't allowed in the communal bathroom, and a married couple couldn't fit in one room very well. And of course, being the charming sort that I am, I couldn't help but shoot to the top of the relatively short list of single female RA applicants. :)

I should have thought of that. I am sure I could have gotten one of the other dorms, I know I was at the top of their choices. And those would have had an apartment for me. Aw, sadness... I am tired of living in a dorm room, that's why I wanted out of where I am now. I was really looking forward to having a living room. And my own furniture.

If only I had thought to put down this dorm as one of the places I would refuse to work... I had that option, you know. But I honestly never expected that I would get the offer from here - I had no idea I impressed them that much.

So what's the bottom line here - that I am too charming for my own good? Silly. That single females are in too short a supply here? Well, yeah, but not my fault. Or that I got my nearly last choice on place to live?

Of course not. I'm choosing to focus on the positive here:

The place I will be living is the cleanest and prettiest on campus. It has a gorgeous view of the river and of the city skyline, a rooftop deck, and in-house dining options for when I don't want to cook. It's as close to my office as I can get without living in lab. I haven't gotten a chance to meet my resident girls yet, but I am sure we will enjoy getting to know each other. The room I will have is no smaller than the one I have now, and I've gotten along fine for two years. The room does come with my own small kitchenette as well as a roomy kitchen for the floor, and I don't need to buy any furniture.

Now if only it weren't for that communal bathroom... but hey, at least I don't have to clean it!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Studying < Dinner

Last Thursday I had a whirlwind day, starting early at 7:30 am, then rushing from meetings to appointments with pencil and notebook in tow. My last meeting was my quals study group, which went from 5-7:30pm.

My mental energy was completely gone by the end of the day, I was hungry, and all I wanted was to head home. I shuffled my way back to lab, shoulders drooping. I leaned my shoulder into the door of my office and - umph. Locked. Digging in my bag looking for my keys, I suddenly had this clear picture of me leaving them on the lab bench in lab. I tromped over to lab, and - door locked and everybody gone.


Oh well, I thought, I don't need my keys to get home - my roommate is home, I can get in. I'll just come back tomorrow morning.

I turned to go, but then oh, wait I thought- the materials I was going to study tonight are in my office. Short pause. I thought about it, and decided - oh well! Too bad, not going to worry about it.

Then as I was walking away, I remembered.

My dinner was in my office, in the fridge.

And did I say "oh well" to this thought? You better think again!

I hunted down somebody I knew was working late in another building, and fortunately they agreed to walk back and open the office for me.

It was good they knew better than to stand between a girl and her dinner...

When to Fold 'Em

Most people I know have a list of projects. If you are a reader, it's a list of your next books. If you are a homeowner, maybe it's a list of renovations you'd like to tackle. Cooks have a stash of recipes, crafty people have bags of yarn or scrapbooking supplies.

Those kinds of projects are generally far down on the priority list - they are for fun, after all. It's hard to start one if the kitchen is a mess, homework is due, or a deadline is coming up.

This causes major problems for people like me that constantly have new ideas for projects. By the time I actually get around do doing something for fun for myself, it's been weeks - months! - since I've had the idea.

So I end up with a huge list of things I want to get to, a bigger list of things I'm halfway through, and a discouraging number of completed projects.

Sometimes you have to MAKE time to do something fun, for your own sanity. Sometimes you have to make it a point to FINISH a project, even though there's a juicy one that you are dying to start. And sometimes you just have to give up on a project, because it's not worth stressing over something that was only supposed to be for your enjoyment.

Yesterday afternoon, I made the time to continue a project. I bought the supplies for this project months ago - maybe last October. And it has sat on my desk in lab since then, waiting for me to get back to it. I spent a good three hours on it, and I'm about halfway done. I'm making wall art for my room. Totally unnecessary, but I think it will look very slick and modern and it makes me happy to "home-ify" my dorm room. I was mostly proud of myself that I didn't give up, that I made progress and refused to let that pile of supplies stare at me for another week.

It's such a good feeling to work with my hands! I love designing and building things, it's therapeutic for me. And I always forget how much I enjoy it until I find time again, and then I go home all smiles and wonder why I don't spend more time on my hobbies.

And today I made the decision to fold on another project. I have an old Sears Kenmore sewing machine that I got for $20, one of the fantastic solid metal vintage kinds. All it needs is the belt replaced, and it came with the replacement belt. I wanted to make curtains for my room, and pillow shams, and all manner of other projects could come out of it. But I haven't touched it since last August, so it must not have been all that important. So I'm giving it away, and freeing up space in my room.

And more importantly, space in my mind.

What projects are languishing at the bottom of your list?