Archive for April, 2011

Relatively speaking

I can’t believe it’s almost May already. As usual, the time goes so quickly! I’m convinced that the ever increasing speed at which time seems to pass by as we get older is a less analyzed yet equally valid aspect of Einstein’s theory of relatively.

In very basic terms, the theory of relativity states that the only constant in the universe is the speed of light in a vacuum. In our previous posts about frequency and waves, we learned about the speed of a wave, v, is equal to the wavelength, λ, times the frequency of the wave, ω. We haven’t talked about light specifically yet, but basically light can be considered a wave with a fixed speed of 300,000,000 meters per second or 186,000 miles per hour.

A consequence of this statement is that time (or more precisely, as we’ve previously defined it, “time interval”) seems to be longer or shorter depending on whether you are moving or stationary. The most basic example is of Person #1 on earth with a clock that ticks once per second. Person #2 with an identical clock is on a space ship moving away from earth. The theory states that for each person with a clock, the ticks are exactly one second long. But for Person #1, if he could hear the ticks of the clock on the space ship, they would appear to be much slower (lower frequency) relative to his own. This is called time dilation. Hence, the definition of a second is relative to your perspective.

As a child, time seemed to pass soooo slowly. Just one school year seemed like an eternity; now, I can’t believe that today is the last day of classes for students at the university. I’ve given it thought and decided that it must have something to do with what fraction of our lives each unit of time is. As a child, one year is a significant fraction of our entire life…a fourth, an eighth, a tenth. As we get older, one year is so much less of our total time lived. Therefore, a smaller fraction of time might appear to go more quickly to an older observer than a larger fraction to an observer much closer to the starting point.

Okay, so my theory is a little shaky on the derivations and proofs, and I’m probably not going to win a Nobel Prize for this exciting discovery, but I think you know what I mean. It does make me realize how important it is to stay on task if I want to graduate soon. I have seven months to finish everything if I want to graduate by fall, and ten or so if I go for spring. Either way, I have to stay focused and make sure all the pieces are coming together efficiently and in good time.

Next week is the conference, so I will be reporting live from the lovely city of Baltimore, MD. Well, I’ve heard it’s lovely, but that was from people who want you to come visit and spend money there. I do have other reliable sources that might have differing opinions. Regardless, hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share while I’m there!

Woodn’t you like one, too?

Occasionally I come across interesting items that are so awesome I feel like I’ve just gotta have it! This is one I stumbled upon this week:

Please advise me, what iPhone 4 owner out there does not desperately need a solid wood case carved into the likeness of an M1 camera? This is awesome. Nay, the clever pairing of organic materials with the semblance of older technology covering the newest technology is so steampunk, is it not? And for those with understated yet refined taste, it’s also available in plain wood with no carving as well. If it were anywhere near my birthday, I might ask for one. As it is, I’ll stick with my purple Speck PixelSkin HD cover. It’s at least got the color purple going for it.

What not to wear

One of my greatest struggles as a graduate student hasn’t been with lasers or math equations or electronics. It has merely been searching for the solution to one seemingly simple question: what does a female graduate student wear??

Clothing a teen or college student is relatively easy–whatever is cheap and in fashion in the juniors department will work, and it doesn’t even have to last as what is fashionable wanes with the season; plus, there is still the possibility of outgrowing things, at least as a teen. Likewise, a business professional or some similar occupation might require dress pants and button-up shirts, leaving little room for experimentation. Other professions require wardrobes depending on the situation. However, there is no rule for graduate students; furthermore, the pool of female science graduate students is notoriously small (and poor), so we aren’t exactly a niche market to whom designers are catering. Stuck somewhere between the collegiate and professional worlds, I floundered about for many years seeking some sense of self identity.

What does a normal twenty-something wear, anyway? The only twenty-somethings to look to for fashion advice seemed to be Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears, and I don’t think either one of those examples would make for comfort and ease while bending over an optics table adjusting knobs or standing on a ladder to string optical fibers across the lab. To add to the confusion, I work for a federal agency, which would usually be a buttoned-up and straight-laced environment. However, my division happens to live in hippy-dippy Boulder, Colorado, where many scientists can be seen sporting Hawaiian shirts with shorts and socks with Birkenstocks (not an exaggeration). Therefore, I,  obviously, had no one to confidently look to for wardrobing advice.

Not being able to figure out my style in clothes, I ended up being a jeans-and-a-tank-top (or a v-neck sweater, depending on weather) girl for a couple of years.  I had tank tops and v-neck sweaters in every color and stripe I could get my hands on. And, looking around at the few female students around me, I could see that they had similar ideas for their wardrobe as well. I guess nobody had any idea what to do, or, quite possibly, most of them didn’t care too much about clothes in general. But it was evident by my growing dissatisfaction with my clothes that I actually cared deeply about how I dressed. I just didn’t know what to do.

After much contemplation and many episodes of What Not To Wear, I finally decided I should make a change. I actually remember one fall about 2 1/2 years ago when I didn’t know what else to do except to go to the mall with an open mind and try on as much stuff as possible. And it actually worked! Suddenly I actually began to have a wardrobe with some interesting items that weren’t too fussy yet had enough interest to stand out. I still avoid the ultra-stylish stuff that, for one, is dog ugly and will be out of style in a season, preferring to stick to clean lines and slightly better quality clothing that will last a while. I’m not exactly rolling in the dough here in the Graduate School.

So, what does a twenty-something female graduate student wear? Whatever she dang well pleases! I’ve basically decided to ignore stereotypical clothing categories and create my own category just for me. It continues to be trial and error to find the right balance of practicality and fashion, but I am honing my own particular style as I go along, one that should also serve me well as I transition from student to scientist.

Public Speaking

As you know, I will be attending a conference next week where I will give a talk about some of the research going on in our lab. The talk will only be about twelve minutes long with three minutes for questions. While I’m glad that I don’t have to fill up a whole hour or anything, it’s actually rather difficult to prune down a whole experiment’s worth of details while still filling in enough details for the audience to follow. And, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I can be a bit verbose at times! So, sometimes it takes almost as much time to whittle everything down as it does to describe all the details.

I am no stranger to giving talks. Yesterday I counted that I have given about a dozen oral and poster presentations at conferences and seminars, not counting talks given to my group at work and various academic committees for my degree program. I actually enjoy talking in front of people. When I say this to my friends, I get odd stares because I am a rather quiet and shy person. However, for some strange reason I don’t mind being up in front of people, in principle at least. Maybe years of orchestra concerts and piano recitals have numbed me to complete and utter stage fright. What does make me uncomfortable is talking to a group of experts about something they are very familiar with and I am not as sure about. Being a graduate student, part of my professional education is building knowledge in the general scope around my specific project. This is a slow process, as the body of collective scientific knowledge around a certain subject is quite large. And quite often, the people who have written most of the papers in said body of collective scientific knowledge are sitting in the audience and listening to your talk, sometimes waiting to see if you’ve cited their work, too.

Of course, not all of them are lions waiting to pounce upon a victim when the first sign of weakness is sensed (maybe some, but definitely not all). In fact, many of them have become my colleagues and friends as I go through my graduate school career. While these more experienced scientists have been around longer and know a whole lot more than me, I have to remember that I am the expert and ultimate authority on the experiments I myself have done, and what I know about it they do not know. And since my particular project often features new, never-before-seen results, they are eager to actually learn from me, what little tidbits it may be.

I am still building my confidence in this area, and while I still don’t mind public speaking on a subject I am very comfortable with, I can get quite nervous about these professional talks. Hopefully I can put a good amount of preparation into this talk now so that I feel confident later, but I’m sure no amount of practice will totally ease my nerves. But every new talk is an opportunity to become more comfortable and confident as a scientist.

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs

My goal of the week from last week–finishing my conference presentation–will carry over to this week. Friday morning those of us going to the conference will do a practice run of our talks, so it should be done by then. Maybe my mid-week goal will be to have a draft finished to send to my co-authors for review before the practice talk.

Along with my goal of the week at work, I would also like to institute another weekly goal at home. While I really love to cook and bake, oftentimes I run out of ideas for meals to cook, and I feel like I keep repeating the same recipes over and over. Since we have started eating a lot more fresh produce and making more things from scratch lately, I don’t have a large stock-pile of recipes to showcase these new ingredients. Also, we love inviting people over for dinner, and I could use some more tried-and-true dishes to accommodate varying tastes and diets. I’ve decided to make a goal of trying one new recipe each week to build up a whole new repertoire of things to cook. I’ve found some good recipe websites and blogs online to pull from, so I hope that this will be a success! This challenge starts Tuesday, because we have some Easter dinner leftovers to take care of first. 😉

And by the way, let me just say that this is turning out to be one of the dreariest springs ever since I’ve lived here in Colorado. It’s cloudy almost every day with lots of rain. Now, I really appreciate the rain, but I am so accustomed to the 300 days of sunshine here every year that I seriously don’t know what to do when it’s cloudy for more than two days in a row! Given the greyness of late, I know I really have to keep myself ramped up for the things I need to do; otherwise, I have a tendency to be very low-energy…kind of like an electron in the ground state until it is excited by a burst of light from a photon.

Now that I have just compared myself to the gain medium inside a laser, I do believe that I have spent way too long in grad school…

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. With sadness we mournfully remember the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus the Christ. However, unlike the disciples there with Him that day, we do not mourn as those without hope, for we have hindsight they didn’t have. We somberly reflect on this act of divine sacrifice knowing that the grave couldn’t hold Him, and Sunday we will be filled with amazing joy as we recall the divine miracle of His resurrection!

This is the fundamental cornerstone of what we believe. Out of His great love for us, God sent his only son Jesus, fully human yet fully divine, to live a perfect live and to therefore be an acceptable sacrificial substitute for our sins…if only we turn our back on our sinful ways and accept this gift. Of course we as humans cannot fully comprehend this transaction, but on faith we accept it, knowing that we no longer face the punishment that our sin–our rejection of God–deserves. Jesus, completely undeserving, faced the punishment for us. The sheer weight of what has been done for us compels us in return to dedicate our whole lives to the one who saves us from everlasting punishment…it is the least we can do and all that we can give.

If I could somehow fully appreciate what this means to me, if the power of His resurrection could be channeled through my life, how different my life would look. What I call my “faith” today would be a paltry flicker compared to a raging fire. Oh Lord, let it be so.

Dangling a carrot cake in front of myself

The last couple of days, I have really been struggling with staying focused on my tasks at hand. I try to work on something, and then I think about something I want to learn about and look it up online, or I will go read new threads on an online forum I browse, or I will do research on some item I might consider buying, or I will rearrange the players in my fantasy baseball line-up, or I will type up a new blog entry for the day. 😉 I suppose the internet seems like a huge culprit here, but in reality I believe it’s a symptom of something else…my not wanting to put effort into a somewhat involved task. If I didn’t have the internet, I would surely be finding something else to do, like elaborately doodling on post-it notes, playing Free Cell, or snipping split ends off my hair (all of which I confess I have absolutely done at various times in my graduate career ;)).

One very effective way of getting me to work on something is to have a close deadline; then I will stare at the project unceasingly until my brain muddles and I eventually crank out something useful. I do have a deadline on this presentation I am creating, but it isn’t until a week from now…that’s nowhere near eminent enough for me to feel the heat yet! So what I need is another means of motivating myself. The goal of the week definitely helps, especially since I am accountable not only to myself but to you, my dear audience, but sometimes I accidentally forget about it for a day or two.

Sometimes I bribe myself to do unsavory tasks by promising myself a tasty treat at the end of the day. Since I generally (at least pretend to) avoid eating a lot of sugar, I find that giving myself an excuse can be enough motivation at least through one day. Long-term stability of this method is not so good; after a few days, I will fail at the unsavory task and eat a treat anyway. Therefore, it seems like I need some sort of carrot to dangle in front of myself that is longer-lasting than a piece of cake yet memorable enough to keep me going mid-week. Maybe I could incorporate something into Wednesday afternoons or evenings that would help me stay focused. Let’s see, Wednesday could become eat-a-piece-of-cake-while-surfing-online-and-trimming-split-ends day, and knowing that I could do all of it that evening would keep me from being distracted by these at work during the week. I’m still not sure how this will work out, but who knows? I could give it a try next week and find that it’s brilliant!

Of course, I still need to focus now, so I will wrap up the blogging and get back to work. I still have a goal to meet by the end of the week!