Monday, June 22, 2009

Online Time

I had the rather startling realization that I may be spending a great deal too much time online. Startling only because, I am sure, I have been in denial.

I spend nearly all of my day in the office online or on a computer. Even while running experiments, I need a laptop to run the software I wrote. Only during lunch hour, honestly, am I not at my computer.

Then I have an hour or two after work I'm not online - I go the gym, bible study one evening, I volunteer to help prepare food Wednesday nights at the dorm.

Then when I get back to my room, I'm back checking email. Or sometimes writing a blog post. :)

Ack! When is it too much?

Now to be fair to myself on the weekends I get out and do things, but that's only two days out of the week. I have a friend who does not have TV or internet at home, and he says he couldn't be happier. Maybe I should take a page from him, and learn to read a book instead. I might surprise myself and be much more productive. In fact I'm positive I'd be more productive.

So why today in particular did this strike me?

Well I was perusing my Google RSS feed when an intriguing Slashdot post came up. Then I was perusing recent /. posts, and I found this one.

And in the comments was a thread with a link to a group just for people who like nerdy things. It's an active group, with a bunch of people, and regularly scheduled events.

And I thought hmm, that might be kind of fun to go to one of the events. And then I thought, oh gees, how pathetic is that? I have friends I actually KNOW that I can do things with, instead of meeting strange people through an online network...

And then I saw that in August there is a group of people meeting to see Brian Herbert, the author of Winds of Dune (release date August 4th, oh yeah), while he is in town during his tour of the east coast this summer.

Ooh, so tempting.

In the end I don't think I'm going to join any groups. But I think I will go on my own to the book signing. :) And in the meantime I'm going to try to spend more of my life off the computer. It'll be good.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The PhD Birthday Party

One of my friends defended his PhD thesis last week, last Monday. I was at the defense, and cheered with everyone else when the professors congratulated Dr. Newly Minted.

But the real party was the one that he and his girlfriend threw last Friday night. I was pleased to be invited, and since I don't know how to pick wine I brought a pan of brownies as a gift to the hosts. It was well received, as my desserts always are. :)

After a couple hours, I was getting ready to leave when the girlfriend called us all into the kitchen.

All of us guests gathered around the table, where she proudly displayed a beautiful handmade cake. With five candles.

We all oohed and ah-ed appropriately, but I was a bit confused. A birthday cake? Did he have a small child I didn't know about?

My friend went up and laughed and kissed his girlfriend, obviously having understood the joke.

He let us in on the secret - it took five years to get his PhD, and so his girlfriend decided it would be appropriate to celebrate the life of the thesis.

Laugh! I like it!

I noticed that while all the guests laughed, the attendees who were also in the third, fourth, fifth..... sixth...... years of their own PhDs found the joke a wee bit painful. :)

There was some thought given to singing "Good Riddance, dear thesis" for the birthday song, but in the end the less cynical guests won out and we sang "Happy Birthday, dear thesis." My friend brought out the hardbound copy of his thesis, and triumphantly waved the book over the cake at the end of the song.

So see, the thesis blew out the candles...

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Week of Work != Week of Results

In an ideal world, the amount you work on a problem would be directly proportional to the results you get.


In the real world, it ain't gonna happen that way.

Sometimes all your hard work can be lost on a mistake.

Two students in my office are currently working in the fab (clean room where silicon wafers are processed, like for making computer chips) to create some very hot science. They need to make a silicon wafer with a particular pattern on it. Of course, they are making five wafers, because they expect some will be damaged or not come out properly. It is expensive to buy wafers, expensive to use the clean room, and expensive to go through the multitude of steps it takes to process a wafer.

They had been working about two weeks and were about halfway through processing their wafers, when one day they arrived for lunch with slumped shoulders and disbelieving looks on their faces. I asked them why they were so dejected, and it turns out that they had just destroyed their wafers. Literally turned them into dust. Poof!

They had put their wafers in the spin dryer, and one of the components in the spin dryer was upside down. Nobody knows how the component got in there upside down. Previous student messed it up, perhaps? It didn't matter, the result was that all five wafers shattered and were spun into little shards of silicon and dust.

Sometimes the problem you were working on turns out to be moot.

I worked for a week straight back in February to model a pneumatic system. I had a huge, complicated model that included compressible flow, springs, dampers, inertia, hardstops, and sonic flow calculations. Then I realized I could make some simplifying assumptions, and it turns out that I could eliminate all the fancy parts of the model. Then I did some more digging and found that Simulink has a toolbox ESPECIALLY made for hydraulic systems, and I could have just used three programming blocks and been done with it.

So when I went to talk to my advisor that week, and I had a model simple enough to be almost trivial. It looked like I had just thrown it together that morning, but I had actually spent the whole week on it.

And then sometimes, a simple five minute fix solves a world of headache.

Our lab has bought a new micromilling machine, but it's been buggy. Micromilling machines are hot new technology, but the emphasis is on the "new." The software and hardware still have some kinks to work out. In fact, in the user's manual, the start-up proceedure lists "Please push button A to phase motors. If motors do not phase, push button again. Repeat." Lovely.

Software bugs I can handle, but a major problem was that the spindle kept stopping randomly, which immediately breaks the tiny little tool when it plows into your workpiece while not spinning. We have tried all sorts of trouble-shooting and possible fixes for this problem.

Finally, a representative of the micromill company instructed us over the phone to take apart the electronics of the controller and inspect some circuit boards. Turns out there were a couple jumpers missing on the card, and that was causing all the problems. My labmate ran to Radio Shack and picked up a pack of jumpers for $.99, applied them in the appropriate spots, and we've had no spindle problems since then.

A week of work for a $.99 fix...

So really, why work at all?

It's enough to make me throw up my hands. Who knows if *this* work will get me results, or *this* work is not worth doing? Ack! I guess all you can do is work your best and hope and cross your fingers...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Professional Societies

I got an email today reminding me to renew my membership to my field's professional society - ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). I have been a member since my sophomore year in college. I mean shoot, the first year is free and after that it's only $25 a year. Although I had a scare when I graduated from undergrad, because the next year my email to renew my membership quoted a price with more zeros than I was expecting. They thought I had become a professional. Hardly! I quickly called them up and assured them that I am still a student, and the $25 price would be much more appropriate...

But even if the membership wasn't so cheap, I'd still be a member.

My dad was a member of ASME while I was growing up. I remember taking a tour of West Point in New York with my family when I was small, sponsored by ASME. There were little remote control tanks in a sandbox that really impressed me. Well, actually it was a "prototype demonstration" in a fancy "simulated test environment" but to me as a kid it was RC cars in a sand box. The engineer giving the tour told us it was important to test prototypes in the environment they would be used in, and I thought that was a genius idea that would never have occured to me.

My dad's closest business partner (now the vice-president of one of my dad's companies) used to work as the ASME college rep through the NorthEast. Through him and his ASME connections, I have access to a vast network of professional engineers and engineers in academia if I need.

ASME was also a big deal at my undergrad school. The student chapter was active and had good membership among the student body. I was an officer in the student ASME chapter for a year, actually. The network I gained was quite valuable - I got an internship through one of the people I knew through ASME.

And it's valuable to me now. Last year I attended the annual huge ASME conference. I presented my research for the first time, and I soaked up the work that others are doing. I saw my undergrad advisor, and one of my professors from undergrad. I hadn't even expected to see them - I didn't realize that my undergrad professors even WENT to conferences. Who'd have thought? Just goes to show what a different side of academia you see from the research/graduate side.

But strangely, none of the students I know here at World's Best School are remotely interested in professional societies. There is a student ASME chapter, but it has measly attendance from undergrads and little to no attendance from graduate students. People only sign up for professional societies if it gives them a discount to register for some conference they are going to.

I haven't taken a poll of professors - I know my own advisor is an ASME member, but I don't know about other professors.

So it's apparently important to me, but nobody else in the student population here.

How involved are you with professional societies? Are you a member of any?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Oh This Isn't Going to Go Well

I am particularly careful about my dating life and social life. I don't give out my number frivolously. But over the course of my two years here in Grad City, I've enjoyed getting to know new people. I'm a good judge of character and I've enjoyed getting to know the few guys I've had dates with, even though I didn't choose to stay with any of them for the long term.

But sometimes I miss.

A guy I was introduced to by a friend was charming, tall, funny, and seemed intelligent enough. Not an engineer, so I don't expect a rocket scientist...

But he texted me today saying, "Hi darling, this is _____, haw you'r doing ?"

Um, how I am doing is fine?

I called him back and left a message.

He called back at 11pm and wanted to come see me. At 11pm. We haven't even been on a date yet.

Oh yeah, this is not going to go well. In fact, it's not going to go anywhere.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like the guys in my life to be able spell and behave as gentleman.

After that, then I see if they can handle the fact that I like Star Trek, own my own cordless drill and have a Mensa card in my wallet... :) Most don't make it past that stage!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It's All In the Units

I am excited about working on a cool project this summer - I am designing a new machine. I'll post more on the project in a later post, but right now I am just in the earliest concept and planning stages. I've done some pencil and paper sketches, and shopped around for the parts I think I'll need.

I sat down today to start putting this stuff in CAD, and crank out some pretty 3D models to show my advisor at our next meeting. I immediately ran up against the very first design decision.

There it was, staring at me in a little pop up box. "You are creating a new assembly" it said, "Would you like mm or in?"

Well gees. I hadn't thought about it.

You know, shuttles have exploded due to picking the wrong units. This is important stuff.

There is always a debate in engineering on which units to use. The rest of the world has settled on metric units, but here in the US everyone think in English units. In academia we can get away with using metric for classwork (because who wants to deal with the stupid g_c factor anyway?), but in the real manufacturing industry (which our lab interfaces with, since we are a production and manufacturing lab) everybody still uses English.

Most professors compromise by requiring students to do problems in both sets of units, and so I've become used to converting over the years. We used to joke about the "kip" (which is a thousand pounds) as being, in the words of one of my more colorful professors, "the bastard child of the English and metric systems."

This units business is especially an issue in my lab because we make very tiny things. And everybody knows tiny things must mean micro-(insert your favorite buzzword here) or nano-(insert buzzword here). Most of my data is measured in microns, which is short for micro-meters. Some of my data is in nanometers. Nobody works in nanoinches.

But the machine I built for my Master's is in nice English units - 1" by 3" platens, 1/4-20 bolts. I use drill bits by the thousandths of a inch, and the machine shop tools are incremented in tick marks every five or ten thousandths. We have more standard than metric wrenches and hex keys and hand tools.

So I have to make a choice. I will have to use many shiny toys to build this machine - our new micromill included. Should I order the 1/64" drill bits, or the .5 mm end mills?

In short, "Would you like mm or in?"

I picked inches.

Because in the end, I think better in English units. I have a better sense of scale for English units. I will still have to convert between units I am sure for various reasons, but I am less likely to make a mistake in English.

And in the end, possibility of less mistakes and more convenient resources trumps international standards.

What do you work in? For class and/or for research?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A New Hat: Co-authoring My First Journal Paper

My academic career is adding a new hat to my arsenal of job descriptions: co-author. I'm working on my very first paper for submission to a journal - I have two conference papers under my belt, and it's time to step it up a notch.

A classmate and I did a rather neat set of experiments as our class project this last semester. We got good experimental results, and did some very nice statistical analysis of the data.

So the work was done like this: I produced the parts using the equipment I built and did the measurements to produce the data. I also wrote the introduction and experimental method section of the class project paper. My classmate did all the statistical analysis (quite a substantial amount of work), and wrote the Results and Conclusions section of the class paper.

Now we are preparing the paper we wrote for the class project for submission to the ASME Journal of Manufacturing Science and Engineering. My classmate is all gungho about this, and has kind of taken the lead on revising the paper, looking up more references we might need to include, etc.

I haven't had time to be as involved because I just got done graduating.

So I got his latest version of the paper yesterday, and the first thing I thought was - I wonder whoose name he put as first author on this baby? His own, of course.

And at first I was miffed, and then I realized it's probably appropriate. I was miffed because this is a paper in MY research area, not his (we're just classmates, he works in a different lab in a completely different area), and I was the one who made the parts and produced the data.

But then I realized that of the 23 pages in the paper (don't get me started - I know it's too long...), only five are things I wrote. The other pages and figures all deal with the statistical analysis and modeling, which my classmate did. And, my classmate has been the one pushing this paper. Also in the back of my mind is the fact that I have just started my PhD career, and I will have plenty of chances for first-author papers in the future.

So I think I'm not going to press the issue of who is first author. Besides, if I'm second author it means I am not expected to do as much work, right? :)

But now as I am reviewing the draft he sent over, I'm having trouble deciding how much I should comment/change. Do I change wordings and sentences which are probably fine, but I would have written differently? Do I delete whole sections, because I think the whole paper is too long? And at what point do I show this paper to my advisor, the PI? After all revisions between classmate and I, or now before we get too far into it?

I've never co-authored anything before, and this new hat has not settled onto my head yet. I guess I'll just have to squash it on for now, it might take a while to break it in.

Monday, June 8, 2009

If You'll Indulge Me, a Bit of Vanity

I am not worried much about staying anonymous, and I am just so proud of my mother's photography.

And so, I give you Miss Outlier (courtesy of my mom at my graduation last Friday):

Life is good.

Studying is Good for the Waistline

This year I have been enrolled in a medical study, and I've been given all sorts of tools to help me eat healthier. I was fed healthy food for a month, which was lovely, and now I have been given a Palm Pilot loaded with software to record my meals (which then can show me my calories and nutrition info for each day), and I have a nutritionist assigned to help me integrate good choices about food into my regular habits.

I also do a ridiculous amount of walking, not having a car. And finally, I've been working really hard this semester and studying tends to not leave much time for going out for rich meals and desserts.

Also as part of this medical study I get a very fancy scale with which to measure my weight once a week.

But for my own curiosity, I've been weighing myself daily. And being the data-driven person I am, it's impossible to have a data set and not be able to graph it. So beginning on April 1st this year:

But then, what fun is that? Much more interesting:

What interests me with this is that it looks like I'm going to settle out at just above 160, which is what I was before I started undergrad. But more importantly, I FEEL better. I'm sleeping better (of course, that could be because of no longer worrying about graduating...) and I have more energy, and I'm satisfied with eating less food.

And hey, just in time for swimsuit season doesn't hurt either...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lab Gossip

People love stories. People love stories about people they know. And people especially love juicy, interesting stories about people they know.

Thus, I am sure gossip lives alive and well in every lab.

Most gossip is harmless - just people's way of passing along news. Steve's wife had the baby, Kevin's doing well in his new job in New York, Bob went hiking this weekend, Aaron is moving this week. I confess that sometimes I pass along news like this, I don't even think of it as gossip. (Maybe I should?) But I have always been taught that gossiping is a bad habit, and will generally come back to bite you. And so I definitely stay away from speaking negatively about anyone, and I've spoken up before when I think someone is being criticized unfairly while they are not there.

I always figure, I don't want people talking badly about me when I'm not there, so I should develop a reputation for not doing that to others.

But man it's hard to stay away from. There is one guy in the lab who is particularly easy to gossip about, because he's always getting himself into one situation after another. Last Friday about 4pm, (when nobody wants to do any real work anymore), a bunch of guys in the office were sitting around in one of the cubicles. I was walking past on my way to the printer, and one of the guys was telling a new story on the gaffe-prone student.

I picked up my papers from the printer, I turned to walk back to my cubicle. I really wanted to stay and listen. They were all laughing, it was a really juicy story.

I tried to walk on by, but I was torn. "Miss Outlier!" they said, "You have to hear this one!" So I stayed and listened, and it was a really funny story.

But I still feel bad now.

So what's your take - how to deal with lab gossip? Don't worry about positive stories, but avoid critical and butt-of-the-joke stories? Stay away from spreading any stories? Stay away from even listening to stories?


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Best in my life

I truly think that now is the best time in my life so far. I am so greatly, greatly blessed.

My family loves me, as I love them, and I am looking forward to seeing everybody this summer during a family reunion. My church family is a great support and encouragement to me, I really enjoy my Friday night bible study and dinner each week. My academic career is going really well, I'm on track for a PhD with a good handful of publications in the next three years.

I have few (or none) ties to any place or time or person, I am free to follow my own path wherever I choose. I have time to follow the hobbies that interest me at the moment (hello science fiction books, crafty projects, and snorkeling/scuba diving), and money to enjoy the things I want (three concerts this year, tickets to basketball games, baseball games, trips on vacation).

After two years here in grad school, I finally have a good network of friends. It was truly astonishing to see the number of people who have made it a point to call me or send me a note, or stop me in the hall and tell me congratulations on graduating and passing quals. Weekends are so much more enjoyable when you have plans with friends - I've been bowling, to a baseball game, to a birthday party, and just out for a random cups of coffee. I've been able to spend time helping labmates move, and volunteering to help serve food.

I get to do extracurriculars as well. I've joined the Scuba Club, taken an archery class, and serve as Treasurer for a student club. I go to the gym for aerobics classes, and I play basketball once a week with labmates (well, they play, I run around trying to be somewhat helpful to my team).

I am happy and healthy, and I could hardly ask for anything more.

I realize this whole thing is a bit narcissistic, but I'm putting this down for two reasons: one, as an encouragement to those stuck in a "down" phase that yes, it does get better. And second, so I can look back later and say, yes, life is good. I realize that life has its ups and downs, and man while mine is on an "up" I plan to enjoy it to the fullest!

So a toast, to life and to joy -

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spicy Chicken Posole

I actually had to walk down the "Shop the World" aisle in the grocery store to find hominy and chipotle peppers.


Another recipe from the Cooking Light cookbook, Spicy Chicken Posole, which I can't find online. This is close. I used onions and red peppers from the farmer's market. I am definitely going to have to make a run to the farmer's market once a week. I filled up my little basket, and I was keeping a running tally of the price in my head (each item has a little handwritten sign - how cute!). But when I got to the register, the owner hefted my bag in one hand, harumphed a bit, and said "that'll be two dollars." Yes sir!

Shiny New Toy

I forgot how enjoyable it is to come to work when no immediate deadlines are demanding attention. I really do love what I do - I like research, I like my labmates, I love building stuff.

But you know what I like best of all?

Shiny new toys.

My lab just got a new piece of equipment - a micromilling machine. This is a fantastic piece of precision equipment that can make cool stuff with very tiny features out of metal or plastic. It's functionally just like a regular milling machine, but it looks different. And it comes with a special high-speed spindle, extra stiff bearings and frame to minimize errors, and it uses little tiny drill bits.

Seriously, how cute are these?

I know how to use all sorts of machining equipment, but this is my first time learning something that has to be this precise. I need to cut metal molds that have features about the width of a human hair, so it takes some special coding and procedures. I've been trained on this machine, but that was four weeks ago, and I can barely remember my name from one week to the next.

So another labmate and I tackled the project of getting something machined this afternoon. We decided to start in plastic, which is easy to machine, and to use a 1/8" end mill, which is the largest size end mill we have for this one (which is tiny, for a regular milling machine).

We were happy when we completed all the setup without a hitch, and thrilled when our test piece actually was running.

Then I noticed the piece we were making was ugly.

Really ugly.

We let the program finish, and when we pulled it out we discovered why the part was so ugly. Instead of the end mill looking pretty like this:

The end mill looked like this:

Apparently we chose a feed rate that was a little too fast, and it melted the plastic chips onto the drill bit as it went. Whoops! Big ol gob of gook on the end means the end mill doesn't cut so well...

Have to try that one again tomorrow...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Witnessing a Student Cry

I saw a professor make a student cry today.

I was sitting outside my advisor's office waiting for our weekly meeting, and across the hall is another professor's office.

The student, I am assuming one of the professor's own, was meeting one-on-one with the professor to present a paper he had written or a progress report on something. I was trying not to eavesdrop, but the door was open to the waiting room. It didn't take long before the professor was very frustrated with the student and started to raise his voice a bit.

At first the professor was just asking pointed questions on details of what the student was saying. The student didn't seem to have very good answers, or didn't demonstrate a thorough understanding. But the student was not a native English speaker, so the conversation was tough to begin with.

Then the discussion quickly devolved into higher-level criticisms.

"We need to change the way you think", said the professor, "you are still not asking questions or looking for answers. From now on when we have a meeting, if I ask a question and you have no answer, we are going to stop the meeting and you are going to go find the answer and come back."

The poor student was so flustered by all this that he started to cry, and he couldn't get out any response.

And then at the end, the professor came back in for another blow - I looked at your class grades, he said, and I saw that you got B's in both of your two classes. You know that in a graduate class that means you were below 50%, so what is the problem? Are you having difficulty studying?

And the student started crying, although he was trying so hard not to, and he just looked so dejected. I have no idea if he deserved it, or if this has been a long standing pattern of his. But it hurts my heart to see somebody reamed out like that, because I know how much I value my own advisor's opinion of me.

I had one meeting last year, September-ish, where my advisor told me that my work was not "up to the level of quality I expect." That one critique alone was enough to make me take a long hard look at the work I was doing, so I'm not even sure how I would have reacted to an entire meeting of unfavorable critique.

I'm feelin' for the student. I hope it's a learning experience for him.