Friday, October 29, 2010

Seminar Trivia

There are a nearly overwhelming amount of seminars going on around campus on any given week. Between my own office's student seminars, my own lab's seminar series, the department faculty seminars, topic-centered seminar series (energy, MEMS, etc.), MechE student seminars put on by the MechE student club, and faculty seminars put on by the MechE student club, I could nearly go to a seminar every day. And that's just in my department! If you start looking at the entire World's Best School, the raw knowledge dissemination I'm sure makes you smarter just by walking onto campus.

But sadly I don't take advantage of these as much as I should. My first year as a grad student, I would try to go to as many as I could - sometimes two a week, but usually one a week. But now that I'm a 4th year grad student, I've become a bit lazy. I recently read a good post on this here, at Gas Station Without Pumps, a great new blog started in June that you can check out if you like.

So this past week I made it a point to attend a seminar. It was from a visiting Post-doc student, and it was on the topic of designing robots with human safety in mind. This is important when the robots are intended for use working beside people, or for rescue robots, and actually is generally good practice in any situation.

It felt good to just sit and learn, something not strictly necessary for my work, but just for the fun of it. And you never know what you might get out of it.

My favorite piece of trivia from this talk?

It takes 340 Newtons of force to break the nose. (That's 76.4 pounds, for those who don't work in SI units.)

And now you've learned something. :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lentil Stew

One of the things I bought at the bulk dry goods store was lentils. The first recipe I tried them in was Lentil Stew - lots of great fiber, and nice and warm for cool fall evenings.

I start with chopped up veggies, basically whatever I got from my CSA farm share.

Then I add the star ingredients, lentils.

Diced tomatoes add flavor and moisture:

The broth comes from a frozen chunk of vegetable stock I made from scraps. (Pink! Beets!)

 Season with soy and Worcestershire sauce.

Simmer and cook down with red wine.

Read a book while kitchen fills up with fragrance, and undergrad girls come poking their heads in the room to see what's cooking.

 Then serve!

(Although hold the wine when sharing with the undergrad girls.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bulk Dry Goods

I have discovered a grocery place locally that I previously dismissed, because I thought it would be an expensive, gourmet, local organic type of place. Turns out it IS a local organic focused type of place, and a lot of it is expensive, but it has one aisle that trumps all that.

There is a bulk food aisle.

Rows and rows of clear canisters, with multitudes of flours, sugars, grains, beans, granola, rice. Amazing.

You can buy as much as you want of each item, it's sold by weight - they provide scoops to put it either into a clear bag, or various sizes of small plastic container. Above is a container of bran, which cost me an embarrassingly small amount. This is perfect for me, since I cook just for myself and not a family. I don't have to buy a 5lb bag of bran (or anything else), and find ways to use it all up. I can pick a recipe and buy just enough for what I want.

Also amazing - they sell bulk spices! So instead of buying $6 jars of random spices at the grocery store, if I have a unique recipe I can just buy a few spoonfuls of what I need. The spices go into little tiny plastic baggies, and they weigh practically nothing. The minimum charge for spices is $0.25 if it's too light for the scale to read the weight, and most of the spices I've bought have been $0.25 each. I've been able to try out some Chinese and Indian dishes, with appropriate spices, and never had to pay more than $0.68 for a packet of spices.

So since I have figured this out, I've gotten cornmeal, cane sugar, flax seed, bread flour, cake flour, lentils, and handful of different spices. I also go here to refill spices I run out of - cinnamon and nutmeg are much cheaper in bulk than at the supermarket.

Not bad for an expensive organic local hippie co-op store. :)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hiking in NH

Now is a beautiful time for fall foliage, and I have been loving the New England trees! About a month ago, I went hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I did the same thing last year, but with a different group.

The trees weren't quite in full bloom at the time like they are now, but it was still beautiful.

This year, I didn't fall for the "moderate" group trick... I put myself down squarely for the "easy" route! So my group hiked up a trail with waterfalls along the way, and stopped at a pretty lake at the top of the mountain.

Rest stop. Some of the group actually went swimming in the lake, but it was COLD. I abstained.

Another group that had taken the "hard" trail met up with us at the lake, and one of them snapped this picture. The "hard" group was all sweaty and had walking sticks, and hydrating packs, and all sorts of accouterments. I was pleased all I needed was a backpack for granola bars. My philosophy was that the goal here was to enjoy the day.... :)

Life is good.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Emotional Concept

So this is not the usual subject of this blog, but I just wanted to share on a more personal level a new concept I've recently learned.

As a caveat, my world revolves around logic and quantifiable ideas. I try to be sensitive to my emotional self as well as my intelligent self, but I'd be the first to admit that dealing with emotions is a skill that I struggle with at times.

I have just learned about the concept of secondary emotions. A primary emotion is what you feel in direct relation to an event (or thought). A secondary emotion is your reaction to the first emotion.

It's such a simple idea, but I had never considered this. For instance, you can be happy you got a raise, and then feel guilty about being happy because your friends didn't get the same raise. You can be scared of the dark, and then ashamed that you are scared.

This past week, I've been trying to notice what my reactions are to various events. And I've discovered that usually I don't have trouble handling a negative event, and really I don't have trouble handling the primary emotions either. I only become irritated or bothered about the secondary emotions.

For example: I was slightly upset when a professor criticized my work in lab. To make myself feel better, I had a huge chocolate pastry for a snack. Actually, that's not quite correct. I had two. :) Then I felt that I shouldn't be upset, and I shouldn't have eaten two pastries when I wasn't even hungry, because I should be able to handle myself better. So I felt guilty for being upset. That's a secondary emotion.

At the end of the day, all I knew was that I was very upset. And I don't like being very upset.

But - BUT! Now look what happens if we think about secondary emotions:

So at the end of the day I ended up a) upset because my technical abilities were challenged, b) upset because I ate so much dessert, and c) guilty that I felt upset.

If I had stopped to think after lab about what my professor said, I could have recognized that yes - I don't like being critiqued. But no, that does not mean I'm hungry, it just means I am feeling defenisve, and I should just deal with that.

Then I wouldn't have eaten the pastries.

And even after I ate the pastries, if I had stopped to think, I could have recognized that yes - I ate pastries to feel better, and that's okay. It doesn't mean I am wrong to be upset in the first place, and it doesn't mean I have to feel guilty about eating the pastries.

And then I wouldn't have ended the day at "very upset".

Because then instead of a), b), and c) emotions to deal with, I would have only had a).

And one emotion at a time is something even Miss Outlier can handle.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Recently I've been asked on several occasions to share my expertise on various subjects.

First, it was to explain all the different ways you can manufacture microfluidic chips. That is exactly in my realm of knowledge, and it made me very happy that I could give a helpful, high-level, general overview of the field to a student completely new to the concepts.

Second, it was to share my technical knowledge on thermal control systems. I have built two machines with thermal control systems, and previous students in my lab have built three or four more machines with thermal systems. The student needing help has no fabrication experience, control systems knowledge, or hands-on feel for how to build equipment. I showed them my lab, my current equipment, and the old unused equipment. Between all the examples, I think I was able to show several ways of designing a solution to the problem he was working on.

Third, it was to present on how to design a good case study, and find speakers, and put together a panel for a conference. This is in relation to the conference I helped organize this past Spring Break, which I will be doing again this year.

Fourth, it was my knowledge on life in grad school. I organized the Orientation activities for the new MechE grad students this year, and I got lots of questions. From the logistics of classes and paperwork, to getting around campus, to the expectations in grad school and navigating the tricky lab/advisor relationships - I fielded as much as I could, and knew where to point people when I didn't know the answer. Even after Orientation, there have been lots of new students in my office, and it's been a pleasure to welcome them to the group, and be available for those random questions that pop up, and help them settle in to graduate life if they need it.

When I sat down to think about all this, I was struck by how far I've come. This is my fourth year in grad school. If this was undergrad, I would be a senior. I am supposed to know my stuff by now. And finally, I feel like I do actually know what I'm talking about. That's not to say I know everything or have nothing left to learn - far from it. But I can contribute a) high-level knowledge of my field, b) detailed technical expertise, c) committee organization and conference pointers, and d) general graduate school advice. I'm not sure what other categories there are left!

So can I graduate yet? :)

    Saturday, October 16, 2010

    1/6 TA

    In the spring I was the TA for a graduate class my advisor teaches. I didn't need it for funding reasons, but all PhD students are strongly encouraged to TA at least once. I thought I was done with TAing for my graduate career.

    My advisor also teaches an undergraduate class. Normally I have no interaction with this class, and in fact I was barely aware that he taught it. I assume he teaches, there is a TA who TAs, the students learn, grades are assigned, and on life rolls.

    This semester apparently there was a hiccup in the system. Because the undergrad class is not very much work for the TA (or at least someone decided it wasn't much work), the TA position was downgraded from a full-time TA to a half-time TA.

    Then they couldn't find anybody to TA the undergrad class. Usually grad students TA because they have no funding through their research, and they need the pay. Hardly anybody has half-funding from research, and would therefore be looking for half-pay from a half-time TA. And nearly nobody can afford to take half-pay only with no other funding.

    So my advisor was in a bit of a bind.

    What he did was this: he decided that himself and the lab instructor would write the homework assignments and do the grading instead of a TA, (which is a sacrifice on his part because that takes time). And then he asked his students (three of us, including me) to be the TAs for the class. Because there is no longer any grading we have to do, that just means we have to cover the laboratory sessions during the week.

    So I am a 1/6 TA. I'm sharing a 1/2 TA between three of us students.

    I have no idea how my advisor is handling the funding paperwork - all of us have funding through our research and don't need the TA pay. I suspect the class officially doesn't have a TA, and we are just moonlighting. I'm certainly not being paid extra. :)

    What this means in practice for me is that every third week, I have four lab sessions to supervise. The lab instructor takes care of coming up with the lab exercises, and I just help the undergrad students with any questions or issues that arise during lab time.

    Normally I get into the office late in the morning, and the afternoon is my main productive time. It's a bit of a pain to have two entire afternoons (and practically, this means two days) gone out of my week. Also a pain because one of those days I normally have class, so I have to skip the class. But it's only every third week that I have to lose those two days, and only every sixth class I miss.

    I view this as part of my graduate duties, and my responsibility to my advisor. But when I mention this to others, their reaction is usually that this is an unfair burden.

    So what say you? Do you think this method is unfair to me and the other two students? I certainly like this better than having one unlucky student ordered to be the TA. If you were my advisor, how would you have handled it?

    Friday, October 1, 2010


    When I left home to go to undergraduate college (oh my, all the way back in 2004), one of the things I took with me was recipes. I raided my Mom's recipe drawer, and copied down handwritten recipes onto index cards.

    By now I have done a lot of cooking, and gathered many, many more recipes. But every so often I come back to those cards, stained and wrinkled as they are now.

    Last week I needed a quick recipe to cook for my girls in the dorm, for a study break (I do a study break every couple weeks). I got home late from lab, with just time to whip up a batch of something.

    Enter one of those dog-eared cards: Snickerdoodles!

    They were well-received. I barely managed to snap this shot before they disappeared.

    Thanks, Mom!