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The Dynamic Duo December 6, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, papers, research.
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When I was doing my MS, I ended up getting a research assistantship working in the same place as Mike (which is, of course, where I now am working).  There was one person higher up in the ranks who would occasionally see us having lunch together and would exclaim, “There’s the Dynamic Duo!”  This person was rather tickled that Mike and were interested in the same field of engineering.

At the time, it kind of peeved me.  I was already getting a bit of a feeling that people viewed me as his shadow, and this comment didn’t help to alleviate that concern.  Now I think about it, however, and it actually was much better than I thought because there was no implication that either one of us was better than the other: we were peers.

We both take this view when we’re doing research, and we really enjoy collaborating on things.  We’ve found that our strengths are complimentary, so it’s very easy to talk to each other about a topic and get good feedback.  We also have several projects that we’re doing separately, but we almost always (especially on our drives home) talk about what we’re doing and asking for feedback.  (Well, admittedly, it’s volunteered whether we want it or not.)

Those conversations have, more often than not, been incredibly helpful in moving projects forward.  However, this leaves us in a bit of a bind because, as I said, some of these projects really aren’t involving the other person.  When this happens, especially if the project results in publication, we always have to make a decision: do we add the other person as co-author or mention them in the acknowledgements.  When it’s been nothing more than conversational input, particularly when we proofread each other’s papers, we choose the latter.  This does lead to some interesting possibilities for entertaining acknowledgements.

I would like to thank my spouse for suggesting such a nifty title.


I would like to thank my spouse for catching that diagram that was completely bass ackwards when proofreading the paper for me.

and maybe even

I would like to thank my spouse for the helpful input in developing the concept of this project, despite the fact that they laughed at my hokey acronym.

I know.  It’s totally unprofessional.  But it’s a lot of fun to imagine doing such a thing.

Review me, critique me, pan me, print me March 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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One of the first things I remember asking my MS advisor was how much detail should I include in a paper for publication.  He said to make sure there was enough for someone else to replicate the work.  When reviewing papers myself, I also look at this as one of the major criteria for publication.

I have tried very hard to stick with this rule of thumb, though there are things I overlook.  Given most of my work is simulation, I sometimes forget that there are certain things which I tend to always do in my work, and not everyone does.  Or maybe there’s a setting I never use and so the default stays in place.  However, someone else may have a different default for that particular setting.  And on and on.  Regardless, I do my best.

The past couple weeks, I’ve been working on a new set of simulations.  I’m basically taking widgets that other people have designed and seeing if I can use them for a particular, and somewhat unusual, application.  I think it’s a rather interesting approach to the problem, but I keep getting mucked up.  The reason is that several of the widgets I wanted to use are not described adequately in the papers.  I’m not talking about some esoteric setting: some of these papers show widgets that don’t give physical dimensions of any of the parts!  I have come across three different papers, all suffering the same problem.

I have decided that these papers are going in the round file.  I was, at first, inclined to write to some of the authors of these papers and see if I could get some clarification.  However, after encountering the third one, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort and decided to use papers from people who are more careful.  I’m lucky in that there are several approaches to making these widgets, so I can be picky.  That isn’t always the case, however.

I’m sitting here wondering first why the authors didn’t think to include this information and, second, what were the reviewers doing?!  It’s not like these are complicated widgets with a million parts.  Is it just my field of research?  Am I the only one who replicates other people’s work?  As much as I think peer review is awesome, I kind of feel like some people have fallen down on the job.  It makes me appreciate those third reviewers that much more.

Whom to believe December 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, work.
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I went to conference earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona.  While there, I saw a lot of cool presentations, but one in particular really got me interested.  I knew we’d done some work similar to this presentation, and it was obvious that there was some interest in the area.  However, I wanted to come up with a different application so as not to be competing with work  already being done.

When I came back, we did a lot of brainstorming, but couldn’t quite come up with anything.  Or rather, it’s not that we didn’t come up with anything but that the practicalities of applying this solution to the application in mind had some serious issues.  The idea sat for months in the back of my head, churning.  Finally, about 3 months ago, I came up with a method to deal with the problems.  I got together some people whose skills were required, convinced them my crazy idea might have some merit, and we started writing out proposals and white papers.

(Note: coming up with an idea less than two weeks before the opening of proposal windows for major funding agencies is NOT a good idea.)

Of the few people who have heard about this idea, they generally liked it and thought it was clever as well as pragmatic.  (And here I feel like I’m doing well if I manage to hit one of those!)  However, there was one person who really did NOT like the idea.  In meeting with this person, they spent a good chunk of our meeting dismissing it and pointing out its flaws.  I was feeling, after talking with this person, that maybe I’d made a mistake and the idea wasn’t terribly good.  In fact, I really felt like they were suggesting the project was a waste of time.

Four days later, I got an email saying that the letter of intent submitted to one funding agency had been reviewed: they want a full proposal.  I felt considerably better after that.  However, rather than feeling entirely vindicated, I think I might want to sit down and take notes on the drawbacks and flaws that were pointed out.  Hopefully, this will contribute to a better final proposal.

After that email, however, I’m not sure I believe that the idea is a total loss.  I guess the funding agencies will let me know one way or the other.

Musings on research June 13, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, grad school, papers, research, science.
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I made an interesting observation today.  It’s funny that I should’ve noticed this before, but I didn’t.

I have finally come to the realization that the question, “How’s your research going?” is really a euphemism for, “How long until you’ve finished your PhD?”  I’m not sure why it didn’t hit me before.  My usual response to the question is to ask ‘which research?’ because I work in two totally different areas of research, both of which I find pretty fascinating.  I thought the person asking the question was actually interested in what I was doing.

Nope.  I realized today that they always say, “Why, your PhD work, of course!”  And, when it comes down to it, only a handful of people who ask really are interested in the research itself.  Most are just interested in how close that completion date is.

The reason I should’ve realized this before is because my husband got the question all the time.  It didn’t occur to me until this line of thought became clear that once he’d graduated, people started asking, “How’s work?”  (And usually, they aren’t interested in his research, either.)

If there isn’t a PhD comic strip devoted to this topic yet, there ought to be.


I got scooped.  (A work related project – not my dissertation.)  It was a small side project that I’d worked on here and there but had really not had any significant time to commit to.  I’d gotten started on it and looked at things here and there.  In part, I was waiting for someone else to finish some of his software development.  (Of course, he was laid off earlier this year…so I imagine I’ll be waiting a while.)

Anyway, I am kicking myself because I obviously had a good idea (given someone else published exactly. the. same. thing.), but there was just no time to flesh it out.  Did I make the right choice by focusing on other things or did I miss the boat?  On the other hand…hey!  I had a good idea.    I, of course, have a couple of ideas of things that can be done based on the original project, but it’s disappointing that I won’t have the paper that gives the original idea.  Of course, at the rate that particular project is going (because it’s so low priority…just some ideas I had playing around in the lab), I’m not sure I’ll ever get those other papers out.

This makes me wonder…is it good to focus on the ‘next big thing’?  Or should one keep trying to work on those little things in the meantime?  How do you prioritize?  I think I made the right decision…but it’s easy to second-guess yourself.

The moment your heart stops beating May 25, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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I hate when I hear the words, “I need some help in the lab.”

I try my best, but I’m the last person you want in the lab.  Therefore, if someone is asking me to help in the lab, you know there is a major catastrophe.

The other day I was asked to help in the lab because things weren’t working right.  In fact, when I started looking at it, things weren’t working at all.  While I hadn’t done the setup on this particular experiment, I was supervising it.  So I had to run through the list of variables that could be affecting the results.  It took a couple hours, but it turned out that some piece of equipment was being swapped out for another, and this new equipment simply didn’t work in the experiment.  So we tried the original equipment again and it worked.  New equipment didn’t.  We tried a third piece of gear and found it worked, but only in particular situations where we spoke the incantations in a foreign tongue (or something similar).

Anyway, we figured it out for two of the three cases.  However, when I first was looking at the non-working gear and not getting anything, my heart just stopped for a moment.  It’s one of those moments where you think, “But I thought I knew what was going on?  Did I completely screw up?!  How could I have made such a huge mistake?!”

And of course the best one: “Does this mean ALL of my research is trash?!!!!”

I hate those moments, even if short-lived.  Don’t you?

Review season May 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, younger son.
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Both Mike and I have been getting requests to review papers, and this has led to a lot of foul language around the house…along with frequent reminders from the younger son that our language is inappropriate.

It’s really hard to restrain yourself, however.  As we’re sitting at the dining room table, occasionally one of us will turn our laptop toward the other and ask something like, “What does this look like to you?” or, “What do you think this means?” or, “What the hell were they thinking?”

I have to admit that I appreciate having a second pair of eyes to catch the things that I miss.  I’m sure the authors of the papers we’re reviewing probably will not appreciate it.  Not only do they have the third reviewer going over their papers, they have two of them.  I hope this will result in double the hair pulling and teeth gnashing on their end…because it sure has for us.

Going so wrong that it has to be right August 11, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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 The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it) but ‘That’s funny…’   – Isaac Asimov

I’d have to say that one of the most interesting things that’s happened to me at work was a simulation I ran recently.  I got this jaw-dropping awesome result.  Then I went back to look at my device I’d modeled and discovered I’d modeled it incorrectly.
I was very disappointed because I was really hoping this idea would work, but it didn’t.  When I made the corrections, things had still improved, but not nearly as much as when I’d done things wrong.
A week or so later, however, we got the idea of, “What if we could make this device?”  And it turns out that we probably can, only using a very non-standard method.
I have to admit that I like to have my work planned out so that I can approach it in a methodical pattern.  I like to do this so that I can make sure my results are very consistent, and it’s easier to tease out problems when things don’t look right.  (I learned that the hard way.)
This is the first time in my experience, however, where a mistake ended up being a good thing.  I wouldn’t mind having more experiences like that.
So have you ever made a mistake only to discover that it wasn’t?

What electronics research is and isn’t January 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering.
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A co-worker sent around an article announcing the closure of the Office of Electronics Miniaturization at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This group did work similar to what our group at NDSU does, but that’s most of what I knew about them.

This article wouldn’t be noteworthy except that I was rather annoyed at one statement made by the UAF spokesperson:

Established in 2001, the Office of Electronic Miniaturization was envisioned as a hub for creating products in the emerging field of microscopic technology. But instead of producing commercially viable inventions, the office migrated toward basic research.

That drift led its closure, UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said.

There are so many things wrong with these three sentences, I don’t know where to begin. I am going to assume they were paraphrasing Grimes.

First, I’m not sure what they mean by “creating products in the emerging field of microscopic technology”. Microtech has been around since the 60s or 70s. It’s not emerging: it’s a mature field.

This is important because it probably underlies the misconceptions present in the rest of the passage. The claim is that the center was supposed to be developing products that would be commercially viable, but instead, they ended up doing basic research.

Do these people have a clue how commercial projects are developed to begin with?

It’s not terribly easy working in a university doing engineering research. It has a decidedly different flavor than the basic research one does in science. Universities are not the cheapest places to do research, in particular because of the huge overhead costs. Therefore, many companies and federally funded projects won’t want to go to a university unless the university has a good reputation. It’s hard to create serious techological advances when your program is just emerging, especially considering the start-up costs.

In order to attract the money, you have to have something worthwhile for your customers, and the only way to do that is to find something useful and novel (Ugh….hate that word, but it’s apt here). You have to have something to offer your customer that no one else has. And the way you get that is not by doing what is already commonplace in the industry but by doing some basic research.

Once you have provided them with something unique, you need to find a way to make it commercially viable. You can come up with the moon for a customer, but it does them no good if it can’t be manufactured easily and cheaply.

So they were supposed to be creating innovative products, but because they were doing basic research instead, they ended up closing down. Sorry, but in order to come up commercially viable inventions, you need first do do some basic research. This stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.

The article goes on to say that the center was funded by earmarks. Under the leadership of the republican congress, there are a lot of places that are losing funding. The problem was not that the center shifted toward basic research. The problem probably was, as Hullavarad later says in the article, that they didn’t have time to get something useful out of that research. Innovation and marketable products require a certain level of expertise, especially when entering a relatively well-developed field. One may say that nine years ought to be enough. However, when one is in a remote area of the country that lacks the expertise present in other areas such as silicon valley, there is going to be some bootstrapping involved. Microtech has been around for decades. Nanotech has been around for 10-15 years. It’s not like this is an area with low-hanging fruit.

I really hope that the excerpt was simply a result of poor phrasing. However, I’ve run into the “engineers just need to go make something” mentality often enough to know that it also could be exactly what was said. Hearing this makes me twice as sorry to hear about the OEM.


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