Sunday, May 31, 2009

Japanese Zucchini and Onions

My second foray into international cooking: Japanese Zucchini and Onions

This one was because there was a bunch of delicious looking zucchini on sale at the grocery store, and I had leftovers after making banana-zucchini bread.

As a side note, I had gotten a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble as a thank you from someone, and I used it today to buy a cookbook. I never see the point in buying actual books, because after I read them I never look at them on my shelf again. That's what libraries are for!

So I bought Cooking Light: Light and Easy Menus, and I am very excited about it. It was different than the other cookbooks that just list 600 recipes by category - this one only has 200 recipies or so, but it's organized into menus by SEASON. So now that I am planning to get off my butt and make it to the farmer's market, I can look under the "Summer" section and get a three-dish menu shopping list. It also lists the nutrition info for each dish, which I guess is pretty common now, but I appreciate it anyway.

Onward and upward, Suzie Homemaker...

Friday, May 29, 2009

I Passed!

I am officially a PhD student, I have passed the qualifying exams.

Last night and today were very long days to wait through. I could only remember the exam questions I got wrong, and the questions I didn't know the answers to. I prepared myself for the worst - hearing that I failed and would have to come back in January.

But fortunately it wasn't necessary.

I went and saw the Star Trek movie yesterday as the post-quals treat I have been promising myself since the movie came out. (And, by the way, it was AWESOME!)

I went out with friends tonight to celebrate.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to cry in the corner for a little while. Just because I finally can, because I don't have to hold it together anymore. It's been a long hard semester. I've completed my Master's thesis, I got As in my classes, I did research and submitted a paper to a conference, I studied for the quals, I upheld all my duties as hall councilor for my dorm, and I applied and interviewed and got an RA job for next year. I was there for my friends when they needed me, and I tried to keep my priorities always in the right order (God, family, friends, me, school).

I worked really hard, and I am so proud of what I've accomplished and so grateful to everyone who's helped me.

I guess what I'm saying is,


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So.... Close.....

I've finished two of three days worth of exams. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

I rocked at least two of the six exams I've taken, did decently on two of them I think, and I'm majorly iffy on the last two. Unfortunately, one of the ones I didn't do well on is the one with my advisor on the panel. D'oh!

What I'm hoping is that after tomorrow's final presentation, all of that smudges out to a "pass."

That's all I need, guys, is a "pass."

Because if I have to do this in January, it might kill me...

Monday, May 25, 2009

You Know What I Say?

Bring it on, quals.


I just read an article on The Simple Dollar on "working parties". This piqued my interest because I just went to one of these today.

A labmate of mine and his girlfriend just moved apartments, into the third story of a 100-year-old building. As is customary with old buildings like this, the staircase (no elevator - who are we kidding?) is one of those narrow, circular jobs. The sofa didn't fit up the stairs, so they sold that off on Craigslist. The queen size mattress they managed to bend around up the stairs, but the box spring had no such luck.

Being grad students, they didn't hire movers, so professional help was out of the questions.

The third floor does happen to have a balcony, however.

And my labmate is an engineer.

Take a guess what happens next?

On Friday the grad student office mailing list gets an email:

How many engineers does it take to hoist a Queen-size box spring up to a 3rd floor apartment through the back porch? I am looking for 2-4 helpers this weekend. I will provide transportation to & from the location of your choice, plus pizza and beer. We will get going at around 4 this Sunday.

A gang of engineers trying to agree on the best way to accomplish a task requiring pulleys, rope, elbow grease, and at least 14 alternate, equally viable methods of attack? Ah, perfect! I wouldn't miss it.

In the end it required a team of five people - two to pull on ropes, one to maneuver the box spring around gutters and the first and second floor porches as it was hoisted up, one to take pictures, and of course one to supervise.

My job was to help tie the ropes around the box spring to suitably secure it. The other guy working on this was a Boy Scout, so he was carefully telling me how to tie the knots (now, this one is kind of complicated, it's a double figure eight around a bite). Then he looked over and said, wow is that a double figure eight around a bite? Why yes, yes it is. Those sailing lessons last year paid off! :)

All in all, we agreed over pizza that it really only should have taken two people and about ten minutes, rather than five over half an hour. But what fun would THAT be?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Odd Hours

Classes ended for me over a week ago, I've stopped going to gym classes because of my foot, and activities at the dorm have shut down in the lull between the end of the semester and the start of summer schedules. I've been let out of doing any heavy research due to quals.

In short, I have very few things scheduled in my planner. All I'm doing is studying.

This is a marked contrast to my life in general - usually, I have a Moleskine full of meetings and classes and appointments with people.

Unfortunately, when left to my own devices I stay up later and later at night. I do my best work at night - it's quiet, I'm focused, and there are fewer distractions. And then of course since I have stayed up late, I tend to sleep in the next morning. If I have nothing in my planner, there's no reason I can't stay in bed to get my full hours of sleep.

But now that it's been a week, this has the odd side effect that I am now completely backwards on my sleep schedule.

Yes, folks, last night (day?) I went to bed at 4pm, got up at 9pm, and worked all night until the sun rose at 7am. Went back to bed, got up at 1pm, and here I am at 3am wide awake. I'm not even sure I'm on 24 hr days anymore - I just sleep when I get tired. Napping? Bed? Who knows!

Gack! Not that it matters, really, the beautiful thing about being a grad student is that nobody cares how you run your life. But I feel like being completely backwards is probably not the right way to go.

But let the record show this is the only way I ever see the sunrise. It's gorgeous. I had forgotten that.

Maybe I should adopt the programmer's sleep schedule:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Uncomfortable Meeting

During my weekly meeting with my advisor this week, I planned to go over the slides I will give next week for my research presentation for qualifying exams. I spent the day before polishing my slides, making sure I had a nice smooth story.

Then I get to the meeting, and I said that I wanted to go over my slides, and I hook up my laptop to the flat screen. I start going over the introduction section, and suddenly I realize that there is some tension in the room.

I look over and my advisor looks really uncomfortable. I stop, and he interrupts me: Miss Outlier, he says, I really don't think it's appropriate that I be going over this with you.


Apparently, this presentation is supposed to be done by the student without help from the professor. I guess this makes sense, since this is me proving to the panel of professors that I can do PhD quality research.

But you might have told me that before letting me blather on for six or seven slides... I was flustered for the rest of the meeting, expecting to be hauled off in handcuffs for cheating on my PhD qualifying exams.

Live and learn, I guess!

Thursday, May 21, 2009


A grad student's stipend is famously thin, and there are many things I want to do in life which cost money. My solution to this is to supplement my income. I have two or three other places money comes in from. One is tutoring - it turns out that there is a high demand in the area for tutors in math and science from World's Best School. So I work for a tutoring company as a tutor, which in legal terms makes me an independent contractor.

I've been a tutor since I first started college in community college - it started as something to fill the dead time between classes, and morphed into something I really enjoy. My favorite subject to teach is definitely math. In fact, one semester I had a student pay his balance at the end of the term with a TI-89 calculator. I was thrilled (a true sign of a nerd) and happily upgraded my TI-83. Math always has right answers, so I feel much more confident teaching that than anything involving subjective opinions (essay writing - don't even get me started). In undergrad I also taught engineering subjects, which selfishly helped me solidify my own technical knowledge as well as the students'.

So it makes sense I'd continue the tradition in grad school. All of this semester I have been working two hours a week in walk-in tutoring. High school students come in and ask questions on their homework - there are a couple other tutors who work there on English and science, and I cover the math questions. This gives me "beer money" as they say in college, and provides me an interesting diversion and a really satisfying feeling of helping someone get to that ah-ha moment. My favorite thing is when my students, most of whom come back to me each week, will tell me: "That makes so much more sense than how my teacher explained it!" Sometimes it just takes a different perspective to make things clear, a second way of explaining.

I have just picked up a new tutoree who would like some help preparing for the GRE exam. This is going to be a new thing for me in two ways - I've never tutored specifically for the GRE exam before, and this is the first student who is paying for premium service. This means that instead of my normal "I'm here to help you for an hour with whatever questions you have" I am expected to say "Here's a lesson plan and a syllabus for the summer, here's a lecture to help you understand, and here's homework to have for me next week." These lesson plans and lectures take some preparation time, and the student has a higher expectation from me.

But I'm looking forward to it. My student seems motivated (he has to be, in order to want to study over the summer...), and at the end of all this I'll have lesson plans ready for any other student on this subject in the future.

Pencils ready! Begin!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chile Pea Puffs

I have been doing my best for the past few months to eat in a healthy manner. This is especially easy as summer comes around and fresh fruit and veggies are in season.

I've never been to the Farmer's Market here in the city, but I've heard it's excellent and I will eventually make it over there.

In the meantime, I have ventured into the Korean market closer to home. I don't know the name of this shop, (it's in Korean), and it's a little intimidating because none of the food packages are in English. But I armed myself with recommendations from friends of mine, a little guesswork, and some help from the kindly shop owner.

My first dish is Chile Pea Puffs, which I realize is not really Korean but it requires wonton wrappers and chiles, so for me that counts as international.

I had a lot of fun with the assembly process:

And the end result was pretty tasty. Yum! I am finding that I really like things with spices in them. Things with more flavor are easier to eat in small portions, and way more appetizing than the standard blob of rice and cooked chicken.

So here's to healthy, satisfying food, and to wandering around looking lost in the Korean market -

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Done With Us

There is one student in our lab who is graduating this June with his Master's, and then is taking a job in the financial market. I'll call him HotShot - you can just see him being a typical high-powered Wall Street exec. Golfing, playing it up with the ladies. He really only did the engineering as a way to make money, and now he's off to the world of business where he can make even more money with even less effort.

In short, he is done with us.

This is senior-itis with a vengeance. He was in one of my classes and part of my group for the final project, and he LITERALLY did nothing. We had to tell him the title of our paper because he didn't know what we were working on. He had a second class where he was also part of a group, and I know for a fact he did nothing there either. He skipped many of his classes for the last few weeks (month?), although he did occasionally show up for his 8am class with me, which I thought was remarkable.

But when he did show up for the 8am class, he would then skip his next class and take a nap on the office couch until lunch. In fact, he took this nap so regularly that the water cooler talk in the office has started calling it "pulling a HotShot."

While I can understand the lack of motivation (shoot, I remember senior year in undergrad struggling to make myself do homework), I am a little taken aback by the total lack of any effort here. I can understand dropping a few plates, but this is not even bothering to start them spinning.

At this point, it truly doesn't matter if HotShot doesn't do anything. He'll graduate and start his new job irregardless. But if I was in the same position, I don't think I could ever check out this completely. Is this just my overachiever gene that won't let me ever take a break? Or as I heard someone say, the "rampant type A++ personalities around this place"? Or is it common practice to coast to the end?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Always Something

It seems I have stress fractured my foot. Apparently playing basketball and taking dance classes and step aerobics classes in $20 Target shoes is not the best plan. (Although on a side note, I'm not sure I believe that $100 shoes are worth it. As an engineer I know how shoes are made, there's nothing worth $100 in there... In fact, the best runners swear by running barefoot, so what gives?)

There is, of course, nothing they can do. A cast is not required, just "stay off it" and wear an Ace bandage. Lovely. Just when we had gotten to flip-flop weather.

And this is disappointing, because I had just worked my way up to two risers underneath my step in step class. By the time my foot heals, I'm going to have to start at one riser again. Sigh. Ah well. I'll swim or something to get in my exercise.

Yeah, right. I'm studying for quals, exercise is going to fall by the wayside... :)

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Very Own Undergrad

It is customary at World's Best School for the undergrads to hold at least one if not several research jobs over their undergrad years. Technically it's not required, but if one person has three research experiences listed on their resumes and you have none, you have just put yourself behind the curve. And people here are nothing if not overachievers. Plus, it does pay some money, so many times undergrads will make research jobs their summer internships.

This works out great for the graduate student population. The grad population at large views these undergrads as minimum wage hired help. So from the undergrad's point of view, this is supposed to be an opportunity to apply the knowledge learned in class, expand your skill set, and contribute important work to the field of whatever research you are doing. From the grad student's point of view, the undergrads are there to do the busy or tedious work that the grad student doesn't want to spend time on.

The happiest medium comes when a grad student has a "side project." This is a project that is, first and foremost, not directly related to the grad student's path to graduation. Nothing worse than a bad undergrad holding up your diploma. This ideal project is also bite-sized, a chunk big enough to accomplish in a few months (semester or summer). Finally, this project has potential for design or creativity from the undergrad, not just running of simple pre-determined experiments.

With a project like this, undergrad is happy and grad student is happy. Undergrad can write a bachelor's thesis, and grad student has interesting results on something that they were curious about. If a paper comes out of the whole thing, then even the PI is happy. Life is good all around.

I am finally far enough along in my graduate career that I have not one but two projects like this in mind, and my labmates have some as well. However, both labmates happen to be moving next week. (One of those life coincidences - one is having a baby and needs more room, and one is graduating, and both ended up in housing limbo at the same time.)

So all the undergrads that have applied to our posting about research positions would like to be interviewed next week, because they want to finalize their summer plans.

So here we go - Miss Outlier is interviewing and hiring her very own undergrad, plus one or two more for the other labmates. I've never done this before, so I'm a bit nervous. Which is silly, I'm the interviewer! But the other labmates have said they will trust my judgement and take them "sight-unseen" as it were, so I'd like not to mess this up.

I could have a lot of fun with this, ("So, undergrad, you have no idea what a mill and lathe are? Perfect!") but I will restrain myself...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Think What Might Have Happened if I Wore Heels

Today was my final presentation of a group project for class this semester. I wanted to look a little nicer, so I wore a skirt and blouse and fixed my hair.

I was on my way out the door when I realized my skirt was clinging to my legs and creating a nice little static electric rubbing action. I turned back quickly and grabbed my static guard (tall spray can with orange cap) and sprayed down my tights, front and back. A short bit later, when I suddenly started recalling memories of hiking in the woods, I realized I had just sprayed myself down with bug spray.

Since that stuff smells pretty strong, I quickly changed skirts so I wouldn't have to smell that all day... but then when I made it downstairs, I had missed my shuttle, so I had to walk to school.

Then when I sat down, I realized I had a rip in the seam of the new skirt, so there was a nice sized hole right on my thigh. Thank goodness for long blouses and tights that are the same color as the skirt...!

Is it 5 o'clock yet, before I mess something else up?

I think the moral here is to stick with my standard T-shirt and jeans. :)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Perceptions of Stress

I have had more than a few people comment to me over the last semester that I don't seem very stressed, given all that I have been trying to accomplish (classes, research, thesis, quals studying, applying for RA positions, various other extracurriculars). In particular, I have had a couple people just this last week tell me that I seem to be very calm for someone who has quals coming up in two weeks.

Well gees, how is one supposed to look?

The last person who said this to me really irritated me, and here's why I think this bothers me. Are you implying I'm not taking this seriously enough? Because believe me, I am. Or do you think I can't possibly be working hard enough if I am not stressed out? Because to me, this seems counterproductive. I think I actually work better if I'm NOT stressed, thank you very much. Do you think that because I seem calm to you, that must be how I am feeling? Not everybody has huge emotional swings, you know.

So I think it comes down to different perceptions of stress. First, I don't get stressed easily. I have always looked to my dad for inspiration for this. My dad worked from home while I was growing up, so I had the unique opportunity to watch how he interacted and handled events in life. My dad runs multiple businesses, and there were inevitable periods where issues came up, clients were unhappy, or equipment malfunctioned. But he never complained, never made a huge deal about it - he just worked as long as he needed to make things right.

I remember working with him one day at a client's office, fixing bugs in newly installed equipment. It was supposed to be a short job, but it ended up taking most of the day. When we finally left for the day at nearly midnight, he yawned on the way to the car and I asked him if he was tired from the day. "Well," he said, "I've been up since 2 am last night." Turns out that he knew he was going to have to fix bugs during the day, so he got up at 2am to take care of office work first. Talk about humbling.

Another time equipment malfunctioned in a big way at a plant on New Year's Eve. Nobody was working that day, of course, but he just loaded up the car and headed out to go fix the problem. I was home on Christmas break, so I went with him. And even thought the process of fixing this equipment was messy and nasty and frustrating, I didn't hear any complaints.

I've also heard him get off of a phone call with a very irritated client, somebody who was quite unreasonable and insulting and aggressive, and then immediately take a phone call from someone else. No trace of the verbal abuse he just took came through to the next client - he completely handled the situation without unloading the stress onto anybody else. Or another time, when we were sitting in a meeting that was running long because of a long-winded speaker. I knew we were already late to be somewhere else, and I was getting fidgety and frantically hoping we'd be able to make it to the next stop. But my dad didn't show a trace, he waited until the speaker finished, graciously said goodbye, and then ran with me to make it to the next place.

In addition, even though there were always things to be done (as is the lot for owners of their own businesses), I was always free to come down to the office and ask questions on my schoolwork. It's been my goal to be able to be like this - completely unfazed by the curveballs life throws at you, yet making time for the real priorities in life.

Second, even when I am stressed I don't show it. I have always been quite talented at distancing (decoupling, if you permit me a technical reference...) what I am feeling from what I am actually doing. This is quite helpful to me, because it keeps me on an even keel most of the time. I'd devolve into a puddle of tears if I thought that would help, but experience tells me I am much better off eating a chocolate chip cookie and working instead. So please, keep your comments on how I should act to yourself.

So the moral of the story is - I don't LOOK it, people, but YES I am stressed. Are you HAPPY now?

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Choosing A Grad School

On Arlenna's blog, there's a post up about what grad students look for in a grad school. (Saw the link through PiT's blog, by the way).

I'm still a fairly new grad student myself, so it wasn't that long ago I went through this. Oh, the memories - applications, recruitment visits, lab tours, lab tours, more lab tours, meeting professors, the agonizing choices. Good times. :)

Here's my take on the survey questions:

1. Where do you look for information about a department? What venues (internet, your current school, your current mentors, conferences, etc.) have been most effective in introducing you to departments that you might not know about otherwise? How important is the department's website in your decision to apply or not apply?

I know many of my peers applied to a bunch of grad schools (the maximum I've known is over 14), but I only applied to three programs. I applied based on reputation alone; I knew what the top school was in the U.S. and I checked the U.S. News report to find the 2nd. The third school I applied to was the best one in the UK. I did very little research into alternatives. I realize this is arrogant, but I'm trying to be as honest as possible for the survey...

2. What are your top priorities in a grad school department? For example, rank these things (and/or add your own): reputation of department/institution name itself, reputation of PIs and their science, types of grad support available (TAships vs. RAships), length of average graduate student time to PhD, attitudes of current graduate students, exposure to postdocs, friendliness of environment, stipend level, etc...

1) reputation (this will be my terminal degree, after all, the one people will look at forever after...)
2) funding available (my preference were the two places I got fellowships rather than an RA or TA)
3) the advisor (personality and style a good match to mine, good reviews from current grad students, established quality research)
4) the project (I really wanted something hands-on not theoretical, a rich array of resources to work with, and a serious cool factor to keep me interested)

3. If you were on the fence between two equally solid offers, what kinds of things could the recruiters do or offer to change your mind?

I had a really hard time choosing between my top two choices. The only thing the recruiters can really change on my list of four things above is the funding - so all other things being equal, I'm going where I can make ends meet. It would also be helpful if the recruiters suggest professors that I might not have thought of to visit during the recruitment weekend - in case there is a really cool project I missed.

4. On a recruitment visit, what are the most valuable and important parts of the trip? Should there be more time with PIs, or more time with students? How much do social receptions influence your feeling of a department?

The most important thing I did on the recruitment visit was visit labs, so I got a good idea of what projects were available. But my favorite thing to do was to meet the students. I really enjoyed getting to meet current students to ask about the culture of the school, which advisors are the best to work for, and other things like that. In fact, on my recruitment visit to the school I am in now, on Friday night the current women students in the department took all the prospective girls out to dinner. I had so much fun on that dinner - I was glad to see the girls were happy and cool and laid back, and I met girls there who I am great friends with now. One of the girls turned out to build robots as a hobby - and I thought that was awesome, I had never met another girl so much like me.

So the lab visits are the deal-breakers. If I didn't find an advisor and lab and project I liked, I probably wouldn't have gone to that department. The students and the social events are the tie-breakers. If I had found a project I was in love with at both my top places, I would have gone with the one where I felt more comfortable with the students and the culture. In my case, the place where I found the project and the place where I liked the students best happened to be the same place - so that's where I am now. :)

5. From afar, who seems more interesting and important to talk to: junior faculty or senior faculty? Do you want to see them give talks about their research, or do you want to spend more time one-on-one?

I was offered a fellowship with a junior, untenured faculty. I actually turned it down in favor of an RA with an established professor - I didn't want to have to be the guinea pig for a brand new professor trying to start their lab.

I'm torn whether I'd rather hear a seminar or talk one-on-one. On the one hand I would rather hear a seminar on their work, and then talk to their students to get a sense of how they operate. But then again, talking one-on-one is more personal and lets the PI get to know you as well, and I can always check their website later to hear about their work. I don't know. Personally I did about half and half.

6. Any other things that stood out as positive or negative from visits you have had, or departments you have looked at (without identifiers please)?

Getting the current girl students to take out just the prospective girls was a big plus. I've done this dinner three times now (as a current student twice, after the first as a prospective...) and I always enjoy it. Getting put up at a nice hotel was also a plus, it was flattering to feel I was being courted. Pure vanity on my part, I know.

The only negative I can think of is one department that had every minute scrupulously scheduled during the recruitment weekend. I couldn't wander off on my own and it felt a little condescending to include directions to the bathroom... But that's just my style, I like being independent. I wanted some free time to explore, but I know other students that really appreciated having everything planned so well.

Miss Outlier, M.S.

It's official - I am now and forever Miss Outlier, M.S.

Two copies of the thesis have been printed on the official thesis paper, signed by all appropriate higher-ups, and turned in unbound to the department for archival purposes.

Three copies have been printed on laser paper for myself, my advisor, and my parents. These are presently out being hard-bound in leather, and will be back before commencement.

I am thrilled.

137 pages, baby. I've done good work in my two years here.

Here's to the next two - or three....

Sunday, May 10, 2009


This weekend I spent some time with friends, all boys (as is my lot in life), to take a break from studying.

And how, exactly, am I supposed to concentrate after this?

A real picture, I assure you. This is not his best angle, but I didn't want to show his face.

Unfortunately (perhaps fortunately?) I am not dumb and blonde enough to interest this particular labmate, which is why we get along so well as friends. But man, I sure don't mind the distraction...

Quals studying? What? :)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

New Understanding of Old Concepts

I did something that felt a little foolish while studying today. I found myself struggling with a very basic concept (Bode plots, if anybody knows what those are) even though that is something I should have down cold.

So I looked through an undergrad textbook and read the section on Bode plots, worked every example problem, and went through the complete derivation of how to draw them. Nobody actually goes the long way around in practice, normally you use approximations and some shortcuts (just like nobody actually takes derivatives in calculus the real way, you just memorize the derivatives of common functions).

And it took me forever, but I finally can say I truly, truly understand this concept. I think I never really did, I just sort of smudged through.

But I can't smudge on quals.

So here's to going back to basics, forsaking your pride and taking things the long way around.

Now you just wait, I'll be 98 someday and still muttering about poles and zeros, saying "SEE what grad school did to me?"

Friday, May 8, 2009

What Can I Do

I am afraid that one of the guys in lab is getting depressed. He usually takes impeccable care of himself - wears designer jeans, is very careful about his cologne (he smells awesome, I have to say...). But he's worn workout pants for the past three weeks, sweatshirts every day. He hasn't gone to the gym in a long time. I've tried to ask about school, research, life in general. How is the girlfriend, etc. Not talking, although he's usually pretty open with me.

He's in my group project for one of my classes, and so tonight I was about to leave at 7:30ish when I saw he was still at his desk, working away at our project. I wandered over to chit chat about the project. My part is almost done, and he was working on his part. I couldn't really help with the analysis (only one person per MatLab per computer, you know) but it just seemed like he could use the company.

So it was one of those gut decisions. I hadn't had dinner, my brain was tired at the end of the day, and I had studying I needed to do - but I sat down my bookbag and stayed. I ended up chattering away for a good 45 minutes while he worked. I said nothing of substance, I felt a bit foolish. But he seemed calmer and more focused as he worked with me in the background. He said, "I'm so glad you're sitting here - it's soothing just to have you talk to me."

I hope I helped. I'm keeping my eye on him. I don't really know what to do beyond offering some human company if that's what he needs. What's the protocol here?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

And Along Come Quals

I have turned my attention nearly completely to studying for qualifying exams. All that remains of my thesis is to print it out on the fancy paper, and all that remains of classes is a couple paragraphs for me to write for a final project report.

Countdown is to the last week in May.

I have been studying for the past four days really hard on manufacturing, and I feel pretty good on this one. I have memorized nearly all the equations I need to, I feel confident in my depth and breadth of knowledge of manufacturing processes. This is a topic I have always felt pretty comfortable with.

Now I am turning to the second topic, control systems. I feel weakest in this area, although I have been studying slowly but surely this whole semester so I'm not completely over my head.

I haven't studied at all for design, for a couple reasons. First, it's a nebulous topic so it's hard to know what to study. Second, I have no study group for this one, because only one other person is taking it and they are not interested in studying together. Third, the material overlaps with manufacturing so I feel like I've already been working on it somewhat. But despite these reasons, I do need to study and there are some equations I need to refresh myself on. I'll get there. Controls first.

How I feel about this whole qualifying exam varies depending on the day. Some days I'm scared. I'm scared of failing, because I hardly ever fail at things and this is sort of a big thing.

But, I'm trying to put fear of failing into motivation to study. On the one hand, I want to be able to say, I did my very best. I don't want to second-guess myself and say, well if only I had studied a little harder... But if I fail, maybe I want an excuse to make myself feel better. Well, you know, I was taking classes and doing research and writing a thesis and studying for quals...

No matter how I psychoanalyze it, three weeks from now life will go on one way or the other. All I can do is be proud of what I have accomplished no matter the outcome.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I remember the first time I saw it. A classmate of mine in undergrad turned in a final report for a class, and it was beautiful. I had never seen a more professional looking lab report. I was on his team, but I had not been a part of the writing, so I had no idea how he managed such a thing. The equations were neatly laid out, in perfect Greek script - the margins and sections were flawless, and I thought for sure he had spent hours wrangling with Word.

To my amazement, when I asked about it he pulled up a huge programming script, and declared that was our paper.

Welcome to the world of LaTeX.

I didn't see it again until I reached grad school (that undergrad classmate was always a closet overachiever...). In math class, I saw a good percentage of homework assignments turned in as typed documents - which struck me as odd at first, because everybody hand-writes math homework. Who wants to try Microsoft Equation Editor for an entire linear algebra assignment?

Then I took a closer look, and recognized the impeccable formatting and clean symbolic math that LaTeX handles so well.

LaTeX is indeed a programming language, but it comes with some simple WYSIWYG back end processors for those like me that don't want to learn yet another language. As with any new thing, there is indeed a learning curve. But it turns out that here at World's Best School, there are enough people at the intersection of a) geeks b) homework and project intensive classes c) overachievers and d) people with bad handwriting, that LaTeX is almost expected.

And the reason that those people were using it for homework is because once you have gotten over the learning curve, why not use it when it makes your work look so good?

So for my Master's thesis, this is what I have been using. I use MatLab to produce my figures, and Lyx to compile on top of LaTeX for my thesis.

And, might I say, my thesis is beautiful. And unlike Word it never loses a figure, reorganizes sections, reorders bibliography sections, or has out-of-place tables.

One of my labmates has an undergraduate research assistant who had a similar reaction just recently - why isn't everyone using this? She has been working on her bachelor's thesis in Word, and has the majority of it done.

So she asked yesterday if she can do her thesis in LaTeX - but it turns out that she has never used LaTeX, and doesn't have any of the software installed.

Oh, and the thesis is due Friday.

Did I mention the majority is already done in Word?

We tried to talk her out of it, but she's determined... we'll see how she thinks by the end of today....