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Check, please! May 6, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in work.
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Today I had one of the more bizarre experiences that I’ve had at work.  It’s not that the experience is bizarre, but having it at work is.

I was chatting with my student when she off-handedly mentioned to me that she’d felt a tickling on her skin and found a spider crawling on her.  In fact, she said, it’s still there on the ground.

I looked…very closely.  It wasn’t a spider.  It was worse.

It was a very sizable wood tick.

My student is from Malaysia and, in her four years here, had apparently never encountered a tick.  I, on the other hand, have had more experience with ticks than I really care to have had.  Of course, any experience with a tick is more than I really care to have.

I grabbed a piece of scotch tape, grabbed the tick, wrapped it up and threw it in the garbage.  Tape is awesome for immobilizing ticks.  Then I proceeded to explain that ticks are blood-sucking parasites that burrow into your skin.  She mentioned that she keeps her apartment very clean, so I had to explain that it likely was a hitchhiker who grabbed onto her as she was walking past a bush or tall grass.  After recalling several other horrible facts about them and explaining the proper way to remove them, I suggested that she have a roommate check her over, especially her hair.

I think I must’ve made her really panicked.

“Would you check my hair?”

You really can’t say no in a situation like this.  You certainly can’t say something like, “I’m sorry, but professional etiquette makes it impossible for me to make you feel better now that I’ve scared the crap out of you.”  I was amused, though, because the previous students I’ve worked with were all male.  I could easily see them saying something like, “That’s okay.  I’ll go home and die from lyme disease,” before they’d ask me to do a hair check on them.  Unless, of course, we’d been on a geology field trip together.

I spent the next twenty minutes sifting through her hair, which was incredibly thick and ebony in color.  It occurred to me at this point that blonde Scandinavians have a distinct survival advantage in this type of situation given a dark tick will stick out like a sore thumb.  On this particular student, you could’ve hidden a whole nest of them and it would be hard to find a single one because they would’ve blended in so well.

The good news is that she didn’t appear to have any other unwelcome friends. And the good news for me is that no one walked in and made me explain something that I’m sure would’ve looked very odd in an electronics lab.

Because you’re worth it December 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, research, writing.
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I’ve gotten behind on blog reading, but I found a post by FSP from a couple weeks ago asking if grad students know what they’re worth.

I have a reasonably good idea of how much I cost as a grad student.  I knew, at a minimum, I could throw my paycheck and tuition together.  Also, after writing several proposals of my own, this has come to my attention once or twice.  On one of my most recent proposals, I had a collaborator from a completely different field, and he needed a grad student to complete his research.  I was rather stunned that this non-STEM grad student would make nearly half what a grad student in my field (well, either of them) typically makes.  I’m glad I didn’t go into that particular field.

I am also aware that most STEM grad students are also cheap if you look at how much they could make going into industry rather than grad school.  Let’s face it: tuition and a paycheck typically still doesn’t add up to a full-time paycheck + benefits + taxes…at least in one of my fields.  (I’ll add that I’m not counting expenses for equipment use because, unless the student wrote the grant and is running the project, that’s the cost of running a project and not with having a student.  The PI would still have that expense if s/he were performing the research him- or herself.)  If money is the only thing you’re concerned about, how much you cost in grad school can be a bit disheartening when compared to your worth.  On the other hand, knowing how much a PI typically gets for grants, the student is likely one of the more expensive items on the budget.

It surprises me, however, that this isn’t something most PIs discuss up front with their grad students.  I understand that most people don’t get the opportunity to put together a proposal in grad school.  It took me a while to get that because my husband, upon getting approval for his PhD project from his grad committee, sat down with his advisor and wrote it up for NSF.  That was something he did even before he got deeply into his research.  I had the erroneous impression that this was something pretty much everyone did on their way to getting a PhD.  I have found out since then that this scenario may have been a somewhat unique case.

In reading the blogosphere over the past few years, I have frequently seen comments by professors about their students not understanding how expensive they are.  It makes me wonder if some of that irritation is due to a lack of communication and would be alleviated by sitting down with the student and walking them through the process of writing a proposal and budget.  Perhaps it’s naive, but I’m inclined to think it would help the student better understand the constraints, particularly financial, that their advisor may have.

Unwarranted weeding October 16, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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Sadly, this isn’t a post on gardening whatever you may think of the title.

It’s advising week, meaning students must check in with their advisors and get permission for their courses next semester.  I usually have a couple students who come to me for help either because their advisor isn’t familiar with all the requirements or because they aren’t terribly helpful.

This week, however, I had another interesting reason for a student needing extra help: their advisor was basically trying to talk them into switching majors.  I thought this interesting because this student hasn’t even completed their first semester yet, and from my observation, they are a pretty good student.  So why would their advisor tell them to start thinking about alternative career paths?

Once I started talking to this student, they explained that they were in precalc instead of calc, so the argument was that they were going to be behind because they wouldn’t be able to start taking some of their major classes by the second semester of their sophomore year.  This seemed like a weak argument, so I began discussing things with the student further.  Unfortunately, that just made me more upset.

The student was in precalc because, on the math placement exam, they were one point short of being placed into calculus.  The test has a hard cut-off.  This is a different scenario in my mind than a student who placed into precalc versus trig (the next class down) by one point.  Second, this student knows a bit about engineering because both parents are also engineers.

Probably what upset me the most was that this student is not your typical 18-year-old white male that represents about 90% of the students I have.  I don’t know that this played into the discussion (as in, I honestly think that the only consideration prompting this discussion was the student’s math placement), but I would think that there would actually be more of an effort to retain such a student.

My personal feeling is that student placement is, at least in part, due to circumstances of their schooling.  “Weeding” students out based on that parameter is not a smart idea as there are a lot of bright kids who come from rural schools and don’t have either advanced classes or highly competent teachers.  If a student gets to college and is really struggling in their courses after a semester or two, that’s a different story, and then I think it might be healthy to talk with the student about switching majors.  Or maybe they will decide to change majors of their own accord.  Either way, I think they need the opportunity to prove that they’re capable before you try to push them out.  You may lose a lot of students who don’t belong in the program, but you’re also going to push out some people who are very bright and capable.

Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.

It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship.  I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student.  However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog.  If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.

The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading.  Read journals in your field.  Look at what interests you.  Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading.  And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles.  Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you.  If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years.  (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)

The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this.  Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t.  (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.)  However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work.  My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas.  I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own.  On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.

Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested).  You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project.  If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor.  It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate.  Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating.  (Yes, it does happen.)

The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it.  Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.

Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.

An accessory to blowing people up… November 5, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, religion, science, societal commentary.
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Part of the reason I’m interested in teaching is because I feel like it’s a morally unambiguous effort:  teaching helps people to learn, and that is always a good thing.  However, I just came across one part of teaching that I don’t feel so good about.

I had a student come to talk to me about advising for coursework.  He said that he had difficulty with his actual advisor, and after a few minutes, the guy just signed his card and told him he was done.  (The professor is new and apparently has some difficulty with English.)  He wants me to sit down and help him plan out his coursework.  I’m fine with that.  In fact, once we started talking, it was clear he was in the wrong major: his major is computer engineering, and he hates coding.  I said the first thing he needs to do is switch over to an EE major because he’ll get a lot more opportunity to work on hardware there, which he said he really likes.

In the process of talking, I figured I should ask if he had any career plans.  He wants to do weapons development.


My dilemma is that I feel that because the student asked for help, I should help him.  On the other hand, I’m pacifist (or try to be) and don’t feel that helping someone find a way to blow up other people is in line with the Quaker peace testimony.

The best thing I’ve been able to think of is to tell the student that while I am very willing to help him plan out his coursework, I do feel like I need to say I really wish he’d use his intellectual abilities to save people rather than kill them.

The other option, in my mind, is to simply not help him.  I have considered this, but I believe strongly in setting an example through action.  If I refuse to help someone when they ask, I think I am only going to make this person less willing to try to see things from my perspective.

This is the hard thing about being in technical fields.  It’s like knowledge of nuclear processes: it can be used to provide a lot of energy for people, but it can also be used blow people up.  By training people in this field, however, there’s likely a non-zero chance you’ll end up with at least one student who does research on making bombs or things like that.  So does that make you an accessory to killing people?  I really don’t know.  And I guess I never really thought about the fact that by teaching engineering students, I could be in this position.  I have to say that it doesn’t make me terribly comfortable.  Of course, the same would be true in physics.

I realize that most people don’t have this particular dilemma, and it’s one I never thought would come into play with teaching students.  I’ve contemplated this a lot because good chunks of my paycheck right now come from military organizations.  I’ve tried to look at the things I’m working on and see if these are morally questionable.  In pretty much all cases, the things I’ve been working on could easily be used for good things: research into ionospheric physics, devices used for communication that could also go into things like cell phones, and RFID for asset tracking.  (I do say that I feel a big funny about working on things that encourage materialism, like the constant push toward new and better cell phones, for instance.  I also know that there’s pretty much no stopping it when we live in an economy that only functions because of materialism…but that’s a dilemma for another post.)

It’s making me realize how very hard it is to completely extricate one’s self from things that are morally questionable despite best intentions.  Maybe the Amish have it right.


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