Spring Break, Grad Student Style

If you would have asked me a year ago what my plans for spring break were I would have given you the location of a great beach, warm weather, and no textbooks in sight.  However, after successfully finishing two quarters of PhD core classes, my definitions of fun are significantly warped.  I had two very different parts to my spring break; I spent the majority of the week working on my creep tests, and a small portion traveling visiting my undergrad institution.

The big highlight of SB09 was going to visit my alma mater.  It felt wonderful to go back down to southwestern Ohio and pretend to be an undergrad, go out with my sorority sisters, and visit my old professors.  Driving into town felt so familiar and comfortable, and walking into the engineering building felt coming home.  My boyfriend even remarked about the differences between my two-year-old undergrad engineering building and the 1950’s engineering building where I now spend all of my time.  It was amazing to sit on High Street in the sunshine and eat my favorite bagel, and to continuously run into people I had spent years of my life getting to know.

But, as much as I loved returning to the place I called my home for four years, I was too much of a grad student to fully enjoy it.  I used to be able to enjoy being with my sisters and friends, not dwelling on my advanced mechanics homework or upcoming machine and tool design project.  Instead, I couldn’t mute the voice in the back of my head reminding me of all the things I needed to accomplish when I returned to Columbus.  Watching my sorority sisters interact made me realize that as much as I hated it, I had moved on from undergrad and become one of those harried looking, sleep deprived grad students.

So here I sit, reflecting on what the rest of my spring break was like.  Instead of wondering what time I was going to meet my friends and sorority sisters at our favorite bar, I spent my spring break enjoying an empty building.  While this might seem boring, it is amazing how much more efficiently you work in a deserted academic building.  I finally appreciate that sleeping in now means rolling into the office at 9:30 am, and a good week means not having to drink as much coffee.  Unfortunately, growing up is inevitable.  But I’m working on translating my definition of fun, and enjoying the small perks of being an engineering PhD student.


A Quarter of Firsts and Lasts

Well, I’ve somehow managed to survive my first quarter as a PhD student with only minimal scarring (and a new addiction to coffee).  As I sit here at my desk in Fontana Labs reflecting on the past several months of my life, a few things come to mind; I have had a multitude of firsts and lasts this quarter.  There were the firsts I knew about (first graduate classes, first academic quarter instead of semester, first GE teleconference that lasted an eternity), and there were the firsts that took me by surprise.  Similarly, I knew this would be my last quarter of being able to think about mechanical engineering (my undergraduate background), and my last quarter thinking like an undergrad, but there are a few other lasts that I am promising myself.

Perhaps the most interesting first was the awesome highs and ridiculous lows I’ve experienced over the last eleven weeks.  I had my first truly gratifying feeling as a grad student when I finally figured out the undergraduate version of x-ray diffraction on my own, and then even managed to apply it to the graduate class.  As a mechanical engineer I obviously never had to learn anything about Bragg’s law, reciprocal space, or anything even related to diffraction.  On the suggestion of an officemate I ordered the undergraduate XRD text and spent the first few weeks of the quarter diligently reading and taking notes, scouring the book for anything that could possibly make this course a little easier to understand.  Somehow, it began to click, and that wonderful light bulb lit up.

Ups and Downs

Ups and Downs

I then had my first true low when I was then shortly pulled down in another course.  I somehow managed to make it through undergrad without ever having to drop a class, and had to drop my first class halfway through the quarter.  I am not one to give up on anything, much less a class that I had already survived the first six weeks of attending.  But for my own mental health (and in the interest of devoting more time to my fledgling research), I had to drop it.  So I said goodbye to an unfortunate experience, and moved on.

My most interesting lasts come more as a New Year’s resolution list than anything else.  While I had some typical lasts through the quarter, I find that the most beneficial “last” things are the things I am promising myself will be the last time I do them.  For example, while I did well on the midterms, I fell in to an unfortunate old habit and became overconfident in my knowledge of the subjects and therefore did not devote the necessary time to studying for finals.  Insert your own conclusions here.  This will therefore be the last quarter this overconfidence replaces my confidence.

Another last for this quarter is related to the first last.  I have a tendency to start out the quarter with my guns blazing, ready to read and do whatever it takes to truly learn the material, which is a great way to start new classes.  An unfortunate remnant of undergrad is that I soon get caught up in my life, reading, and other things, and this inertia quickly dies out until I sit down at my final and wonder what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.  This will be the last quarter that my inertia dies in the first part of the quarter, and I move on from an undergrad mentality to a graduate mentality.

So with you as my witness, this will be the last quarter I do these things.  Although it is typical to sit here and say, “hindsight is 20/20,” this time I will say “foresight is 20/20,” and learn from my firsts and lasts this quarter.  In the spirit of theses firsts and lasts, I must now actually get back to reading and work.  See you next year!

We’re Off to See the Wizards

A few weeks ago I attended my first major conference as a grad student.  As per my research, I participated in the 11th International Symposium on Superalloys, an event that occurs every four years.  I was fortunate enough that I was able to attend the conference without presenting research, so I was able to actually sit and learn the entire time.  I’ve been to conferences before (I attended MS&T a few years ago), but obviously never as a grad student.  It was truly the most knowledge-filled several days of my life, and although it was draining, it was also very rewarding.

Since this was the first experience I’ve ever had with superalloys, I will admit there was a bit of a learning curve.  I read a few articles and one of the general books in preparation for the conference (the author of the book I read turned out to be the program chairperson, which was kind of neat), but still had a lot of questions.  I dutifully sat through each one of the twenty-minute presentations and took notes on the talks, pestering the closest group mate sitting next to me with questions every few minutes.  As I discussed in a previous post, I’m also very lucky in that my group mates are always more than happy to answer questions and explain things to me whenever I am at a loss (which is seemingly more often than not as I start my materials science and engineering career).  Although I was completely lost in the dialect of the field at first, by the end of the week I was throwing around “M23C” with the rest of them.
The conference itself had a very unique set up; it was held at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, PA, so we were all more or less trapped on site.  However, the conference gave us afternoons off to explore the resort.  So we all froze in the air-conditioned tundra during the morning and evening sessions, and thawed out in the glorious sunshine during the afternoons.  We played tennis, volleyball, hiked, ran, and took the alpine slide down one of the hills.  There was even an OSU-Michigan alpine slide race, with our advisor vs. the Michigan advisor.  Our advisor won the race, and we all celebrated a (hopeful) foreshadowing of this year’s OSU-Michigan football game.Perhaps my favorite part of the conference was this interaction with other attendees.  The other OSU girl and I roomed with the Michigan girls, which gave us the opportunity to get to know other students doing similar research.  We were able to interact with people from all over the world, from the universities all over the United States, to the UK, and even to China.  Also, since I just started my research, being able to meet and hold face-to-face conversations with the gentlemen I share Friday morning teleconferences with was important to me.  We also all participated in social gatherings every evening together, which provided an open forum of discussing everything from differences in culture with students from out of the States, to common research topics and our understanding of them.

I left Columbus, Ohio Sunday morning with very little understanding or connection to my field, and returned Thursday night with a much deeper understanding, and lots of different connections.  The social interactions with other people in the field provided the opportunity to make connections to bounce ideas off of, and an opportunity for open discussion about common issues.  Most importantly, I was able to interact with the wizards of the field as a first year PhD student, the people who are at the top of the Superalloys game, and are even experiencing the same problems we are facing in our research.

There’s Football in the Air..

It’s happened.  OSU’s football season starts this weekend, and the entire campus (not to mention the city of Columbus) has a unique buzz.  There’s been a sudden influx of red and white jerseys proudly displayed by Columbus citizens from every walk of life.  A clock outside of the Polaris Fashion Place (an upscale mall north of Columbus) has a countdown, to the second, of the first game this coming Saturday.  Even the weather has changed its tune, dropping ten degrees and raining as if to signal that football season is here.

For those readers who have never experienced an OSU football Saturday, it is truly something to behold.  The entire city shuts down, making it therefore impossible to do anything but sit in front of a TV and watch the Buckeyes “fight the team across the field” to victory.  Picture the intensity of the stereotypical Texas high school football portrayed in the TV series “Friday Night Lights” and movie “Varsity Blues,” and translate it to a city with a population of almost a million people.  If you are trying to make it down 315 around campus, forget it.  Want to watch something different on TV?  Good luck.   Nothing is sacred; I have memories from shopping days growing up, when the stores would set up TV’s in order to provide shoppers the option of simultaneously watching the game.

Even though I grew up here, I never quite understood the whole idea of OSU football.  Both of my parents completed their post-undergraduate degrees here, three of my grandparents were associated with the University in some way (one English degree, one dental degree, and one Emeritus professor in the College of Medicine), and the fourth grandparent felt a strong association with OSU even though she was (gasp) a Purdue grad.  If scarlet and grey runs through anybody’s veins, it should be mine.  OSU home games always seemed like more of a nuisance to me, making it pretty close to impossible to drive within a ten-mile radius of campus.

But a few weeks ago something changed.  Almost like my DNA finally morphed to include the Buckeye gene, I now actually care that there is a football game this Saturday.  More than care, I plan to dress up in the new jersey I got for my birthday (it’s Laurinaitis in case you were wondering), and actually watch the game.  There is something here (I personally believe they put something in the water) that makes you ridiculously excited for a couple dozen guys dressed up and throwing a synthetic version of a dead pig around.  Now, when I hear “O-H,” I excitedly reply “I-O!”  And I am looking forward to being trapped on campus for an entire day with a city full of my closest OSU football friends.

We Move In Packs

One of the most different parts of being a graduate student is the idea of having an actual group; in undergrad I had my capstone project research group, and the set of people I did homework with every week, but we were always ships passing in the night as the semesters changed. We had our own traditions and space (a group of us adopted the first floor conference room for daily homework problem debates), but we were all interested in very different things, and ended up in very different career paths.
In grad school you have a dedicated group of people who share the same advisor, space, and general research interests. A major tip I was given as a senior applying to Ph.D. programs was to choose an advisor and group I felt comfortable with. The idea was to find your niche within a larger program, so that when you needed something (from choosing classes to learning a new polishing trick), you could turn to the guy/girl sitting next to you and ask with reasonable results.
Coming from a smaller (I graduated with about forty other mechanical engineers), very tightly knit undergraduate program, I knew I was going to need something more than just office mates. As I searched for my perfect program several things became immediately obvious to me. One of these was how well all of the professors and students got along, not only with each other but also within the groups in smaller settings. I visited and interviewed with several big universities during the summer and Fall of my senior year, and had incredibly different opportunities at each one.
When I visited Ohio State a few months later during a dreary February weekend, I entered Watts Hall and found a great program. I met many of the students I would be working with (and decided I’d love to carve myself place in their circle), I found a professor I respected and knew I’d love working with for the next few years of my life, and decided I was going to be a Buckeye.
So here I sit, five months later. I have five officemates, and there are several more group members who occupy the next few rooms down in our corner of Fontana Labs. They are definitely a unique set of engineers, each from a different undergraduate background, and several from very different parts of the world than Buckeye country. They’ve all adopted me, and have made a space for me within the group. Each one of them is more than happy to answer my seemingly unending lines of questioning. And once every few hours, we make our way down to the third floor for coffee and tea, always in a pack.

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