Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laser safety

Check out the groovy music in this old-school laser safety video from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

via Archive.org

Any ideas what year this video was made?  

Friday, August 24, 2012

How the defense went down

I just went to a PhD defense that, in my opinion, went really well. He is a well-liked graduate student so there was a great turn-out, including his entire committee, which is itself rare.  His presentation was clear, well designed, and well rehearsed, with several jokes throughout that got hearty laughs from the audience. All around it was a good job.

I was so f*cking jealous.

When I was a grad student, I had a recurring fantasy about my dissertation defense. I imagined this elegant presentation with beautiful figures, clever but seemingly improvised jokes here and there, touching acknowledgments to everyone who helped me along the way. When I finished, I'd smile, take in the applause, and then throw a huge fucking party. I mean, I would really throw down and celebrate. After all, the kinds of feelings I imagined I'd feel were good ones: proud, ecstatic, relieved, maybe a little smug. The dissertation is the last big hurdle. The last five to seven-and-a-half years of my life led to that moment. Pass the tequila, right?

What actually happened didn't go as hoped. My research project and written dissertation were painfully drawn out and my oral presentation slides were thrown together two days before my defense. I barely practiced. The day of my defense, I had problems connecting my computer to the projector, which totally flustered me, and one of my committee members who was supposed to be there never showed. I deadpanned my way through my slides, no jokes. When it was finally over, the only emotion I felt was exhaustion. I didn't want to celebrate, I wanted to crawl under a rock. The worst part is I couldn't just congratulate myself for a job well done because all the bad feelings about taking too long to graduate and regrets about my research project still felt like fresh wounds.

Looking back, there was really no need to feel so shitty about probably the biggest accomplishment of my life. 

I don't know ANYONE who is perfectly happy with their PhD work. Sure, I'd given better presentations before. Sure, I could have finished a few months sooner, but I learned a lot and had a lot of really interesting experiences along the way. Besides, all that really mattered was my committee was satisfied with my presentation and were more than happy to sign my approval forms. The most important thing: it's DONE.  

I only recently came to the following realization, which is also really important:  My dissertation does not define me as a scientist or as a human being.

That's huge. 

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” 
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What do scientists do?

Really enjoyed reading this Ask Reddit thread:
All you scientists out there, what do you actually do on a daily basis?

Answers were provided from the technician level to the P.I. level, a mix of academia and industry.

Reading through the answers, I realized there were a lot of similarities in daily tasks, such as:
  • using a pipette to transfer liquids!
  • doing things to mice and rats!
  • gathering samples, which could mean adventuring into the wilderness to hunt them down or could mean dissecting rat brains!
  • preparing samples!
  • shooting lasers at things (my favorite)!
  • programming lab equipment!
  • repairing lab equipment!
  • operating lab equipment, which may mean pressing a button and waiting!
  • more fucking waiting!
  • plotting and analyzing data!
  • actively avoiding your boss and/or administrative staff!
  • reading research papers!
  • writing research papers! 
  • writing grant proposals! 
  • wasting time on reddit to avoid doing any of the above!
  • drinking a lot of fucking coffee!

In other words, it's just a job, like anything else.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A rover with a friggin laser attached to its head

Oh neat. The Mars Curiosity Rover has a laser on it that vaporizes rocks.

Artist rendition via Wired

The laser is part of an instrument called ChemCam, which includes a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) which breaks down objects by blasting the fuck out of it with a focused laser beam, and a Remote Micro-Imager (RMI), which detects the spectral signals of the blasted material. The idea is different elements have different spectral signals (i.e. wavelength, i.e. color), and you can examine the spectral output (colors emitted) to determine the nature of the rock.

The "laser blast" is actually a process called laser ablation.  Laser ablation at low power densities causes the blasted material to melt and evaporate, but at high power densities, such as the ChemCam system, the blasted material is converted into a plasma -- an ionized gas that emits light.

Read more about ChemCam at NASA and The Guardian.  There is a less technical summary of all the instruments over at Wired.


Added 8/30: ChemCam updates via Wired.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Talking shop

This is a funny story but for non-academics I may have to explain why it's funny:

I'm taking a fitness class at the university rec center.  Coincidentally, a fifth year grad student in my research group is taking the same class.

Just before class yesterday, she and I were doing some warmup stretches and discussing how funny it is to still get crystal axis directions confused even after working with alternative crystal orientations of a hexagonal wurtzite crystal structure for years.  (Blah blah blah, technical lingo, etc.)

A younger girl warming up nearby overheard our conversation and commented, "You two must be in the same major!"

HA!  Undergrads!

Why this is funny:  
Graduate students and post-docs refer to their field by "department," and if you want to get more specific than that you refer to "whose research group are you in." 

I haven't referred to my field of study as my "major" since my undergrad days.  For some of us that's a long time ago, and talking about majors just sounds silly and childish, like wearing a backpack, taking classes, or caring what your parents think about your life choices.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fun with LEDs : light graffiti

I'm always fascinated by what designers and artists can do with LEDs.  Here's an example of an interactive art piece from artist Antonin Foruneau.

Water Light Graffiti, created in the Digitalarti Artlab

The "Water Light Graffiti" is a surface made of thousands of LED illuminated by the contact of water. You can use a paintbrush, a water atomizer, your fingers or anything damp to sketch a brightness message or just to draw. Water Light Graffiti is a wall for ephemeral messages in the urban space without deterioration. A wall to communicate and share magically in the city.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Female scientists

Is Jessica Hagy of Indexed comics telling it like it is?

Community college

It was in my 12th grade AP English class, as I was forced to listen to my horrible classmates list off all the colleges they were applying to, when I suddenly realized I didn't have a plan for myself.  High school was a miserable experience I was trying so hard to merely endure, it was as if I never considered it actually ended.

That's how I wound up at community college.

It was a small two-year college in rural Maryland only twenty minutes from my parents house.  Though not at all prestigious and though many people just "ended up" there, for 18-year-old me it was a good fit.  I was painfully shy back then, but in the two years I was there, I grew more confident in myself and had the opportunity to explore a variety of interests before eventually settling on a pre-engineering curriculum.

To this day, some of my favorite courses and instructors of all time were at my community college. I took art history with elderly folks, photography with stoners and old lesbian couples, a poetry writing workshop with working professionals and some guy I had a crush on in high school, and chemistry lab with one of the middle-aged moms from my neighborhood (who ended up being one of my favorite lab partners ever).

My community college experience grounded me. It helped me realize that you can't judge anyone for their educational background, or lack thereof, and success should never be measured against the same guidelines. Everyone has a different path in life and often the ones who take the longer or more scenic path are the most interesting people to talk to.  Have you met a 22-year-old first year graduate student who did everything right?  They're the worst.  (I kid, I kid.)

I love the show "Community" because it shows how diverse and interesting the community college experience is.  Every character is at a different point in their life and comes from a different background, yet they manage to bond over their common experience of taking a class together.

Also the show is funny as hell.

From Wikipedia, on the development of the show:
The premise of Community was based on [series creator] Harmon's real-life experiences. In an attempt to save his relationship with his then-girlfriend, he enrolled in Glendale Community College northeast of Los Angeles, where they would take Spanish together.[14] Harmon got involved in a study group and, somewhat against his own instincts, became closely connected to the group of people with whom he had very little in common. "I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them," he explains, "even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them."[16] With this as the background, Harmon wrote the show with a main character largely based on himself. He had, like Jeff, been self-centered and independent to the extreme before he realized the value of connecting with other people.[16]
Sidenote: I never met a Joel McHale at community college.