Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chocolate Tasting

Having completely enjoyed both wine tasting and scotch tasting, when I saw a local chocolate shop offering a chocolate tasting - well, my attendance was assured.

And then I remembered last summer, when I invited a bunch of girls out a couple times to enjoy an evening of fun and relaxation. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for something similar. So I sent out an email to the girls I know, and wouldn't you know it turns out girls are nearly universal fans of chocolate - group of eight of us RSVPd for the tasting.

Man, with this along with dinner club, I'm feeling very social these days! I am blessed with a plethora of activities, an enjoyable set of of friends, and a few extra hours in my week to pursue both of those things.

It turns out that I was slightly mistaken about the event - it was actually a chocolate and TEA tasting. The chocolate shop teams up with a fine tea shop, and they present carefully edited pairings - much like you would expect wine and cheese pairings.

It was fantastic! The chocolate:

Figure: Hello, my lovelies.

Each sample was intensely flavored, beautifully balanced. In fact at one point, my friend sitting across from me leaned back in her chair and sighed, "Well I'll just need a moment here, I'm having an out-of-body-experience...." Laugh!

And the tea was also fantastic, although I didn't get pictures. I never realized the depth and variety of teas out there - I've now been inspired to move beyond my little Lipton Green Tea bags...

I was intending to buy a few of my favorite type of chocolate at the end of the event, but then I couldn't decide, so I bought samples of three different types. The other girls also had a hard time deciding. But it turned out in our favor - our group of eight were the last ones to leave, so they sent us all home with tea! The tea guy had brought a package of each type of tea, and he can't sell opened packages, so we got to split the six (nearly full!) packages amongst us. I nabbed the Chai tea, my favorite, and I am sipping it as we speak!


Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Diversion from School Life

There is something incredibly sexy about a man working elbow-deep in grease on an engine.

Guys with pink popped collars? Eyeliner? Mere silliness. I'd take any day instead that guy I know in the automobile lab, scruffy chin and worn-in jeans, waving a wrench in the air as he explains the details of piston architecture to undergrad students. (Did you know each of the three rings on an engine piston has a specific purpose and design?)

He's whip-smart, friends with everybody, social and outgoing, and works like a real man. He's interested in entrepreneurship, flies planes, drives motorcycles, and is a natural leader. I've known him for two years, enough to appreciate the depth of his character.

I wonder if he'd go for a girl with a Craftsman toolbox in her room?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I love plants. I used to be a horticulture major, actually, before I became an engineer. I realized I liked gardening more as a hobby, and less as a career. But I do my best to keep green things around. For instance, my windowsill in my room looks like this at the moment:

It's much more colorful in the summer, as unfortunately I do not have things which flower all year long. But happily, look!

Tulips! Beautiful! My loving family sent me flowers for Valentine's Day. Thank you! Seeing these made me happy every time I looked around.

I split them up into two vases, so I could have one at home on my table, and one to take to my office. Because did I mention, my office windowsill looks like this:

See? Plants everywhere. I would also like to show off this beautiful vase my brother got me for Christmas: 

The colors, the shading, lovely! It wasn't the right shape for the tulips, but I will find a chance to use it. This summer I have signed up again for a farm share, and this year I am getting a share of vegetables, fruit, AND flowers. I can't wait.

Yay for color and a reminder of home during the dreary winter!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dinner Club

I realized several things earlier this year.

1 a) I have a good group of friends whom I would like to enjoy and spend time with
2 a) I am living in a city with fantastic food, lots of it even within walking distance


1 b) I would like to get to know my friends better, and expand my circle of friends
2 b) I never venture beyond the same few places to eat


3) Dinner Club!

In January, I sent out an email to my friends proposing a "Exploring Food" dinner series, where we would try a new restaurant close by once a month, or every few weeks. People were just free to come if they could make it.

I was a little nervous, because if nobody wanted to go eat with me it was going to be pretty lonely sitting by myself with a menu. It's a little like asking someone out on a date, I imagine. Will anybody like me?

And wouldn't you know, our inaugural dinner we had nine people! We had to push two tables together. In my head I was going, Yay - they like me!

Our first place was an Ethiopian restaurant, which is a kind of food I'd never tried. It turns out that they serve the food on a big huge platter (well, two platters for nine of us...). They put down a layer of teff tortillas, and then put piles of food clumped on top.

Then they hand out towels to wipe your hands. "Huh?" I wondered, "I guess that's a nice gesture."  But soon it all became clear. The staff brought out piles of more tortillas, and the way you eat is to tear of pieces of bread and pick up the food with the bread and your fingers.

We all loved it. Of course it didn't hurt that the restaurant also makes it own wine out of honey, and a bottle of that gave us each half a glass to try. All in all, quite a success!

Tonight was the second outing. This time there were seven of us, and we went to a seafood/grill place. Again, the conversation was good, the food was good, and I got several suggestions for the next place people wanted to visit.

I'm very excited about this dinner club, and I'm especially pleased that so many of my friends have expressed interest. I imagine the group will always be a little different each time, depending on people's schedules, so it'll be a new adventure each time.

And what's not to like about that?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Life as a TA: Or, Grading Stinks

This semester I am the TA for my advisor's class. Now that I have gotten the important things like breakfast figured out, I have moved on to other things like writing homework, grading, and holding office hours.

The first homework assignment for the class was actually a hands-on exercise in the machine shop. I am pretty experienced in the machine shop, so the shop manager and I together led two sections of students through machining, bending, and injection molding. Some students had never been in a machine shop before, and some students could have run the lab themselves. It was really interesting to observe the wide range of abilities - because I am so hands-on, I am always amused by people who don't have the mechanical knack. It takes all kinds of engineers in the world, and some should just stay away from spinning machinery...

The second homework is a standard problem set that I put together. It was the very first time I had ever written a problem, and designed a homework set. I think I did pretty well, but we shall hold the applause until I see how the students do... I was surprised at how hard it was to come up with a good problem. You would think that starting with the answer, it would be easy to work backwards, but actually it takes a lot of thought to write a clear and concise problem that tests specific technical concepts.

I have yet to hold office hours (which are scheduled the day before that second homework is due).

But I have graded the first homework set. All I can say is, WOW. What a huge time commitment. The class has about 45 students in it, which is large for a graduate class. I am sure the first time is the hardest (I set up a spreadsheet to track grades, had to figure out how to assign grades on the online class website, etc.), but STILL. It took me about 10-15 minutes to grade each assignment (typically about 4-8 pages long, so I think that's pretty quick). That's TEN HOURS of grading papers. Ack! 

I don't know if it was harder because it was a hands-on experiment report (so lots of variation between papers) and it would be easier with a standard problem set (the please-do-numbers-1-through-10 at the end of the chapter variety). I guess we'll find out next week, when the more standard homework #2 is due.

I did it over three nights. I have no idea how I'm going to manage this without the Olympics.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Girl and Her Tools

I posted not long ago about the layout of my room, but I intentionally didn't show you a pile of things that has been defying organization. My collection of tools:

Figure: You can't see it, but at the base of that pile is my favorite Bosch cordless drill. If there is a fire, I would grab my laptop first and then that drill case.

But then this January, a happy combination of two things happened. My grandparents sent me a Christmas check (thank you, Grandma and Grandad!), and I got a flyer from Lowe's advertising a sale on tool storage.

Well, you may guess what happened.

I marched myself to Lowe's (literally marched - I have no car...) and payed cash (pulled a $100 bill from my wallet in honor of my Grandad!) for a gorgeous toolbox.

Figure: Craftsman, baby. Ball bearing slides. Premium rollaway casters. Gray and black. Very sexy.

I don't have quite enough money right now for both the top and bottom pieces of a classic toolchest setup, so I got just the bottom half. I had a choice between a four and five drawer bottom chest, and I couldn't tell from the online pictures what might work better for me. Five drawers, more organization - but four drawers, bigger spaces. So I actually brought the empty case for my drill to the store, so I could check to make sure the case fit in a drawer. Wouldn't you know, the five drawer option was too small. Gold star for thinking ahead...

The precise model I wanted wasn't in stock, so I had to wait a whole four weeks for it to be shipped to the store. When it arrived, I rented a ZipCar SUV to go pick it up. Ripped open the packaging, assembled everything, and whala:

Figure: Happy girl

What a difference! Now when I need things, it's all right at hand. In fact a girl came to my door needing WD-40, and I was able to just whip that right out. And where did I put this toolchest in my room?

Figure: Some girls have bedside tables with a romance novel. I prefer this arrangement.

It seems rather fitting that the best place for it is the foot of my bed. I know some women justify their purchase of expensive shoes by calling them "investment pieces." Well, this is my investment piece. I expect this to last until I get a house and a proper garage. And at some point along the way, I'm going to "invest" into that matching top chest. :)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Serious Grad Student Business

I am fortunate to work in a place where the administrative head of the department has done his best to make the office space for students conducive to good quality of life. We have two office complexes for grad students in my building - one on the first floor, one in the basement. Each one has nice large cubicles with desks for students, big windows, a conference area with table and chairs and projector, couches, and a kitchenette. To be honest, I haven't seen any grad office setup better than what I have. 

About 30 students fit in each complex. They try to mix around students so that you sit next to people who aren't necessarily in your lab, but you are never more than one or two cubicles away from someone you know.

This makes a nice social atmosphere - people eat lunch together at the tables by the kitchen, late in the evening there will still be people around to keep you company while you work, and everybody is generally friendly. You can always find someone to shoot the breeze with if you feel like procrastinating. Some of the students with bigger personalities will be yelling about something or holding conversations across cubicle walls. News and gossip spreads quickly, and it feels like a community.

We get work done, too. There's a white board in the office, and it's not uncommon for someone to be working out a problem on the board. If somebody walks by, they may help you out. Or someone will be in the middle of describing an idea, grab a marker and sketch out new concepts. It makes me feel like an official science nerd to walk in at 8am and be greeted by a nice classical beam bending derivation.

Figure: Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory has the whiteboard process down.

But for the past several weeks, the whiteboard has been dominated by something else. Feedback loops and free body diagrams have been replaced with a trickier, more visceral problem. Behold:

Figure: Yep. Those are football picks.

Our office had a pool going on NFL picks. The whiteboard was where the official list was kept of each person's picks. Each week there would be groans and high-fives as circles and X's went up and the scores were tallied.

This Monday after the SuperBowl, the participants gathered around for a final time, and money changed hands. The board is erased, now, and back to regular use. But if you look closely, you can see the faint images of the lineup still there - a reminder of the very serious grad student business that goes on around here...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Just had to Report

 I jogged 2.25 miles on the treadmill the other day. I have not run that far since I was 12 - when I used to tag behind my dad as he ran around the neighborhood streets.

Thanks to Jenny and Jaclyn for the key to this achievement - don't go so fast! My only experience with running has been as a wheezing, gasping, I-think-I'm-gonna-die activity, and the last few times I tried jogging I quit after half a mile. It turns out that if I go slow (and I mean, really slow - it took me 14 minutes to run a mile, which is only barely faster than walking...) then it works. I can breathe!

Figure: See? Just like this - happy happy joy joy...

So I am actually quite impressed with myself. I think I may try it again. I am prone to being competitive, even (especially?) with myself. Generally I try to do just a little bit better each time - so next time, maybe I'll shoot for 2.5 miles.

My mother likes to tell a story of me, back when I was 12, which goes something like this: Each time I would go jogging, I would make sure that I went just A LITTLE BIT FARTHER than the last time. There was an old coke bottle lying on the side of the road, and I used to use that as my marker. So one day I excitedly reported, "I went two miles to the coke bottle and then TEN FEET!" Hey, whatever works, you know? :)

And now my mind is already racing (ha!) ahead - if I can do 2.25 miles, it's not that much farther to 3.2 miles! That's a 5k! There's a 5k coming up here in Boston, and the sign up date is March 1st. Maybe if I stay on top of things and keep adding TEN FEET each time, I'll register...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Room Layout

I've been meaning to do a post for a while on my room. I've told you that I got a job with free rent, and I've told you that I like my room to reflect my taste, so here you go - the living arrangements of a PhD student in an undergrad dorm.

So come in, come in - the above picture is what you see when you are standing in the hallway.

If you walk in and look to the left, you see that beyond the table on the other half of the room is my bed. Yes, I only get one room, so I have to do what I can with it....

See I put the desk in the middle of the room, to sort of separate the kitchen/dining half from the sleeping/TV half. I went to visit a grad student friend of mine once in California, and he also only had a one-room apartment. He joked that he needed signs to put up - here is kitchen, here is office, here is bedroom. It may look like one room, people, but work with me here! See the vision!

They put me in a room that would be an undergraduate double - but I get the whole thing. So instead of just one dresser and closet, I get two dressers and two closets W00t!

They did modify the room, though, it's not exactly an undergrad double. They added a kitchenette along one wall. I am thrilled that I get a fridge, sink, countertop, cabinets, etc. No dishwasher, but hey - I"ll take it! It's enough to cook with, and that makes me a happy girl.

Here is the "living" half of my room. My bed is not made, and I thought about fixing that for a moment before I took the picture. But, my bed is never made - so I figured I'd stay true to reality. I have found that I have no use for sheets. A fitted sheet and a comforter is all I need, and I have no patience for smoothing out a bedspread every morning. So it pretty much always looks like this.

I'd like to point out here those two dark brown benches. Those get a lot of use - they are storage benches, so I keep my scarves in one, and my extra sheets in the other. When my girls come in for "study breaks" (read: free food), I always run out of room around the table, so the girls make themselves comfortable on the benches. My grandmother sent me Christmas money last year, and that's what that present bought. Thanks, Mama Lou!

As you leave, you see the standard hallway of your standard dorm - full of my girls, the best any RA could want! Take a cookie on your way out (actually this week it's banana muffins, but I usually stock goodies of some sort...) and have a good day!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Two Birds with One Project

I am taking two classes this semester, both of which are project classes. I was thinking the other day that my semester is going to be a bit busy (although, when has a semester ever NOT been busy) because I have two project classes, plus being a TA, plus working on a business idea. And that's in addition to being an RA, and organizing an entrepreneurship conference. Oh yeah, research is in there somewhere too. Whew!

But the good news is that I have found a way to simplify my life.

My major is machine design, which means that I get to take classes in how to design things. These are my favorite classes - I've taken a product design class, and a precision machine design course. I love the creative element. This semester one of my classes is on mechanical product development. Students work on products that are in the prototype stage, and learn how to design those products for manufacturing/production. So it's basically taking a prototype and making it a real, commercial product.

The first day of class, we listened to students who had prototypes give short speeches about their idea. We then had to pick teams, by the next class period. I wasn't really enthused about any of the projects, so I was just trying to pick the one that would require the least work (so that I could focus on my other projects this semester). Hey, when you are a grad student you can be honest about your motives... :)

And then, a lightbulb went off.

I HAVE a prototype! The product for my business idea!

In fact, in order to move the business idea forward, this semester I was already going to re-design the prototype to be a commerical product.

Well, DUH, Miss Outlier, use the business idea for the class project!

One quick meeting with the professor later, I was set. I recruited a mechanical engineering friend of mine in the class to join my team (wasn't hard, she likes working with me), and one other classmate also wanted to join (an engineer with a ten-year business/finance background).

I am now really excited about how this term is going to go. I'm thrilled that all the work I will be doing for the class is also helping the business move forward, and selfishly I'm happy to have a couple classmates helping (and yes, they know it's my business, I made that clear up front). I'm also thrilled not to divide my time amongst three projects, only two. AND, the work I did for the business class on this idea LAST semester will be a good building block for the assignments for this semester (we have to do things like market analysis, etc.).

Onwards to a commercial product!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

TA Duties

This semester I am the TA (teaching assistant) for a graduate class my advisor teaches. I've never been an TA before, but all PhD students here are "strongly encouraged" to be a TA at least once. And, since my advisor's older students have graduated, I'm his only student who has taken the class.

So this is a new experience for me, but I figure I have had enough TAs in my school career that I should almost automatically be qualified to be a good one. Fortunately I don't have to teach any lectures, but I do have to make up homework and tests, generate the solutions, collect and grade all the assignments, and hold office hours. In addition, there are one or two other highly important duties...

Figure: Breakfast. Most importantly, coffee.

Yep, this morning I was in charge of breakfast. This particular class is held at 8am, (nearly unheard of for a graduate class) so it is customary to have a continental breakfast for the students. This was my favorite part of class when I took it last year, and on more than one occasion the only reason I made it out of bed was the pastries calling to me.

Normally the breakfast is catered. However my advisor got too busy and forgot to set up the catering - so he asked if I could do it. I figured that the ordering process must be standard procedure, so the secretary ought to know how to do catering. Except, the secretary is on vacation for two weeks, and yesterday the backup secretary was out sick. Ack!

So I just bought breakfast myself. I have the class list so I knew how many were going to be there, and I remember what kind of food it was when I took the class. I ordered coffee from Dunkin Donuts (with cups and creamers and all the accessories included) the night before, and picked up assorted juices and bagels and pastries at the grocery store. This morning I picked up the coffee, packed up the bagels and jam and cream cheese (individually sized - I felt so clever) and juice, and off I went. I didn't get the customary fruit plate, but you know what? People can deal. I draw the line at slicing and dicing melons and berries and oranges.

The students were thrilled (they didn't know they were getting breakfast) and the advisor actually delayed class by five minutes so he could get coffee for himself. Let no one stand between academics and their caffeine fix...

Fortunately the backup secretary helped me today to get the catering set up, so I don't have to lug coffee around any more - whew! But I thought for my first day on the job as TA, I more than earned my keep.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Career Statistics

Well last year I had an idea to do a monthly feature, and track things like how happy I was each month. However since that was the only post I did on that subject, it wasn't much of a monthly thing... Also I realized that I'd rather keep track of my career-type statistics (papers published, conferences attended, etc.). So in the spirit of iteration, let's try this again...

And as a bonus, the published journal paper was selected for inclusion in a "Collected Articles" compilation, which I gather is an honor. I'll take it!