Archive for January, 2011

Publish or perish

Previously I mentioned a paper that I am writing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. This paper summarizes a very large portion of my work over the last two years. I began putting it all together at the end of June last year. I spent about four months writing and refining it, then another two months getting it through our internal review process. It just took so long that I felt overwhelmed by it, and I also felt inadequate, as if I were so poor at writing or so lazy to put off working on it that it was my fault that it took so long. But in reality, we have so much data and have done so many different experiments that the extended process of sorting it all out was unavoidable. You don’t want to be hasty and publicly publish something incorrect that you will later regret. So we carefully went over it many times until we had a document we are proud of.

Then one of our two internal reviewers had many significant comments about the paper–some useful, some beyond the scope of what we were really trying to get across. It took another month or more to talk through our differences of opinions, remeasure a few things, and even remove a section before he signed off on those.

Finally, in the middle of December, it was ready for submission to the actual journal. Most journal review processes take for-stinking-ever, but this is a newer online journal with a quick turn-around. I submitted the paper to them. I was quite annoyed with their lack of support for graphics conversion, but that’s another story altogether. Then I left for Christmas break.

The day after I returned after the New Year, they sent their decision–Rejected! We couldn’t believe it. While one reviewer was complimentary and suggested minor revisions, it appears the other reviewer had some strange and unfounded claims, and the associate editor didn’t even bother to consider their validity before automatically rejecting our submission. Supposedly, in order to keep response times fast, they don’t want to think about things…I mean, wade through multiple revisions. So instead of being able to rebut the unreasonable claims and do minor revisions, we are forced to do a complete resubmission. Oh well. As they promised, they responded quickly, even over Christmas,  so another submission shouldn’t take too long. But, in light of the other woes presented to me by this publication, it is somewhat disheartening! My only consolation over all of this is that this paper will comprise a significant chunk of my thesis, and it’s already mostly done! So, in principle, every day that I work on this paper is another day closer to finishing my dissertation, right? 😉

Here’s to better luck with our resubmission in the next week or two. Here’s to my staying motivated to finish it!

Snowy day

We have snow today; it began yesterday and went through the night. This morning is bright with sunshine, but the roads are snow packed and slippery. The high is only going to be 15 or so, so it will be interesting to see what the road conditions are at the end of the day.

I rode the bus in to work; I still have to drive to the park-and-ride, but that’s a lot safer than risking the whole 13 miles to the lab. If there’s only a little melting today and it refreezes (as it obviously will when the temps dip down to -10 or below tonight!), the roads will become a solid sheet of ice, making the drive tomorrow even worse than today. That’s okay; I’ll just take the bus again tomorrow, too!

I did have to wait quite a while for a bus, due to their running behind schedule and my missing earlier ones. Fortunately, I don’t have to be at work at any specific time, plus we were granted “delayed arrival” to the lab today. So whenever I manage to stroll in is usually fine. I will also need to leave earlier than usual, as I have a scheduled engagement after work on Mondays and the bus ride takes longer than driving.

So, what shall I do with this abbreviated work day? I intend to make some revisions to a paper that I am writing with my colleagues. I must tell you the story of this paper in a later post; it’s long and depressing, almost laughably so! But we are just almost to publication, which is great. So yes, today’s goal is to work on those updates and send them to my boss for his thoughts and comments. Better go work on that now!

Fun in the machine shop

Today I spent a few hours in the morning working in the machine shop. I needed to mount some connectors in an aluminum box so I can wire up some electronics inside of it. My machining skills aren’t great, and it’s been a while since I’ve done any drilling and such, but with the help of one of the post docs we got the required holes drilled. This afternoon I may solder some of the wiring.

While no expert at power tools or heavy machinery, I am proud to be a female who at least knows her way around this kind of stuff. I hope my husband is also proud to have such a well-rounded wife, too. 🙂 I help my husband with his woodworking projects and do my own lightweight projects around the house. Maybe I am a little scared of power tools, but that just means I respect them, use them safely, and shouldn’t require a trip to the ER.

I am also no electrical expert, and my soldering skills are poor. But I can usually get two wires to stick together with electrical contact, whether or not it’s beautiful or professional. Heat shrink is my friend! I am also no good at electronics in general. Keeping track of ground and which wires are at what voltage has just never been my strength. Now I find that the majority of my work in the lab is actually electronics. Some I am still perplexed by, but I am able to hold my own on the basics now. Sometimes I really think I should have been an electrical engineer…actually, no; I don’t want to be an electrical engineer, I just see how that knowledge would be useful with my research.

So, graduation progress for the day…I’m making an electronic connector box so we can hook up a photodetector and finish setting up my new laser system. Then I’ll get to take all kinds of data I can write about in my thesis! One step at a time…

My academic journey so far

So, first off, let me start with a bit of my academic history. I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Physics from the University of Arkansas in 2004. I began the Physics Doctoral program at the University of Colorado in Fall of the same year. For those of you who can count (this doesn’t include me; I did this calculation four times on my fingers before getting it right), that means I am in my seventh academic year of graduate studies. This is really quite a lot of years. The Graduate School tells you that the “standard” time for a doctorate is six years; however, very few of my classmates have achieved this, so I don’t feel like a total loser. However, it’s definitely time to get on with things.

For the first academic year I was a Teaching Assistant. Then in Summer 2005 I began working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a Department of Commerce research lab that is just down the street from the university. I am in a joint program between the two institutions that allows me to do my research at the lab while still a student at the university. I think this arrangement is awesome, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity. NIST scientists do world-class research related to fundamental standards and cutting-edge technology, and we even boast a handful of Nobel Laureates.

In the beginning, I studied precise measurement of time and frequency. Your first vocabulary word of the year is “metrology,” which means precise measurement of a given quantity. Time and frequency are the most accurately measured quantities in the universe; we can measure fluctuations in a second to the seventeen decimal place: that is, 0.00000000000000001.  This is quite amazing! What amazes me is that technology needs this kind of precision, and even better.

So, for the first four years at NIST I learned measurement techniques; however, measurement techniques alone does not a thesis make. What I needed was something to measure with my measurement skills. This is pretty much the reason my journey was taking longer than usual. My boss and I realized I needed a more substantial project that would make use of this skill while focusing on an actual project. In February of 2009, I moved upstairs and began working with the Optical Frequency Measurements group on a joint project with my previous group. Basically, this group generates the ultra-stable time and frequency signals that we like to measure. So, for the last two years I have been working on my current project which will comprise my thesis research.

In subsequent posts, I will set up some technical background for time and frequency signals and metrology and describe my actual project. Hopefully I can describe it in a way that’s clear for everyone to understand, and hopefully interesting, too! I’ll write a little about myself, too, since I’m a real person behind all these big words that even I struggle to understand.

The beginning of the end

Hello world…this is my first blog post out in the wide, wide blogosphere.

It’s the beginning of a new year, but not just a calendar year for me. My goal, if attainable, is to graduate with my PhD in Physics before the end of 2011. Maybe I will need some more time, but I think it’s good to have a goal for which to strive.

One of the main purposes of this blog is to share my experience with you. In a way, letting you know my progress will hold me accountable to actually have something to tell you! My friend has a sign over his desk that reads, “what have you done to graduate today?” In a way this is similar; I can come here and share the progress I am making, which should be motivating to do more. I can also share my work with you, hopefully in a way anyone can understand without being too technical. I might also throw in some other interesting science and physics tidbits that I come across so we can all share in learning about this fascinating world around us.

I also think it would be nice to share some of my “real” life as well. I am definitely not big on thinking about work all the time; in fact, I truly believe that my life outside of work is the most important thing, and I would love to share some of that with you as well. Some of my extracurricular activities include a husband, a dog, knitting, sewing, church, reading, cooking, and sitting on the couch. Something for everyone, right?

Well, as far as being productive goes, I am indeed spending time posting to this new blog instead of going to the lab and working on something useful, so I’ll leave it at this for now. I look forward to sharing with you this year, and let’s hope we get to have a party on Commencement Day, December 16, 2011!