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.

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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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