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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Interview

Day 1 of Rain: rained on twice, saw sunlight once (indirectly).

Day 1 of Rain: rained on twice, saw sunlight once (indirectly).

Today I interviewed with Exxon Mobil, or more accurately I interviewed with a recruiter from one of the Exxon Mobil research groups. He was mostly interested in those with a few years of grad school completely and more towards the geology of things. I just wanted to interview as practice and see if there was a possibility of jobs in my future.

Looks like a no. I was essentially told that a PhD in Space Science has little or no place in Exxon Mobil unless it is through transferring what I learn to a semi-related field like combustion research.

Combustion and space plasma are not quite as similar as one would hope. I think this effectively crushes my dream of selling out to the man. I will be forced by societal pressure to take a job at a University, NASA, a private space company or a start-up of some sort. No large corporation with career track job for me.

At least I got a free dinner, a USB light, a 10x rock magnifying glass and a small card listing the geological periods. All (except the dinner) nicely logo’ed with Exxon Mobil. Exciting times.

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Safety first, then kimwipes.

Safety first, then kimwipes.

It is like herding cats.

The first challenge in coordinating three undergraduate physics majors (2nd, 3rd and 4th years) and one 3rd year biology major is simply getting their schedules. They give you one and then it changes during the first week. Then the second week is spent finalizing schedules and getting their final ones.

With those in hand a table mock up of when they are available with when two can be in lab at the same time is fairly simple. But the challenge is figuring out hours for everyone while trying to consider things like not working with the same person the whole time, time for meals and not assigning random blocks in the middle of their free time (it is better to abut research time to a class).

So I finished a schedule, sent it out thinking it was pretty good.

Three hours later I heard back from one of them, I read what he gave me as time available. It was time he was in class.

By this time my piece of paper with schedules on it has several layers of colors, ink types and notations. If there are any more changes it will require a new weekly calender mock up.

After writing the above I received some more e-mails about the schedule and have scrapped the whole thing and started over. This time I set up four google calenders, one for each person. The calenders are shared between the four of us with each person able to only edit their schedule while viewing the others. The goal is that everyone will put up the hours they will be in lab, choosing times others can be there, and then others will schedule that time as well.

I started by setting up my times so it will be interesting to see how this will go. I also dropped my involvement from ten hours to five hours a week as the stress this was causing is not worth the payoff (which is essentially nothing at this point).

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These are probably some critical component of the Madison Symmetric Torus.

These are probably some critical component of the Madison Symmetric Torus.

Sometimes working in an experimental research lab as an undergraduate is not a fun experience. Lately (since getting into graduate school) I have not been motivated to work on or even care about the project I am working on. Simple tasks take much longer then they actually should and I often feel that our project is not welcomed in the lab. Part of it is that I came in sort of in the middle/beginning so I have no personal attachment to the project. The other is that most of my time is spent scavenging parts or trying to get the necessary equipment to do what needs to be done.

The main problem is that I hardly see the connection between our project and actual research, and even if there was a connection the research is not at the top of my list for what I find interesting. I guess that is a problem when my area of interest is a particularly narrow one.

Then again starting out in a situation like this makes Washington next year seem so much better in comparison.

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I love the bowls of candy present during the holidays.

I love the bowls of candy present during the holidays.

Earlier this week new set of bulletin boards appeared near the physics study room at UCSB (where I happen to spend a lot of time). One of these is dedicated to research opportunities to help undergraduates find professors to work for. Since I did not have such an easy conglomeration of information I had to find out the hard (well harder) way.

So you want to get involved in undergraduate research? The two main types of research (for sciences at least) are working for a professor at your university and summer internships (Research Experience for Undergraduates: REU’s).

It is easier to get work at your own university since there is no application process involved, there tends to be no or little pay as well. To find a position at your university it is best to think of what you want to do. The internet is one of the best tools here. Start by going to the department website and find the section for research. Usually the websites are divided into academics, research and maybe outreach. Once in the research sections look at everything available and make not of what interests you.

Based on the list of interesting items find three to four professors with interesting sounding research and maybe a good website. If a website is not listed for the professor try googling their name to find it, oftentimes it is not listed on the departments website or it could be under another departments. Read what they have on their websites and maybe a recent publication to become familiar with the type of research they are doing. This exercise will also help you decide what you actually find interesting, if reading the websites and papers (at least the website) is boring try looking at other types of research.

Once you find three or four professors with interesting research go talk to them. If you have a class with one of them ask them about their research after class or during their office hours. If you have never had a class with them see about finding when their office hours are and go visit them then. You want to do a bit of research on their research first so you can ask relevant questions and show that you are serious about doing research. If you have never met them before or do not feel comfortable showing up randomly e-mail them. Here is an example of such an e-mail, most is specific to my circumstances but it gives a general (I sent it in June) :

Dear Professor [Name],

As you know, in order to secure a graduate school position as a physics student I need hands on research experience. While I was studying abroad in Edinburgh last year I applied to many summer research positions including NSF REUs such as University of Washington and Caltech, as well as NASA’s summer research program. Unfortunately there were not enough research opportunities for me to get one.

Since the research is necessary for me to continue my career in physics I am asking if you have research opportunities in your lab starting this Fall quarter.

I understand that you are currently working on [research].

My field of interest is currently [similar and related interests to what they are doing, that is why you are asking them].

However, I would be happy to take advantage of any opportunity you may have. If there are no positions currently available in your lab, are you aware of any other opening available for me.

I would like to talk with you about any research opportunities in your lab, or any advice you may have.

I am looking forward to hearing from you, I will contact you for follow up in the first week in August.

Sincerely,

Michael Hutchins

[Contact Info]

That should give some ideas as what too write if you need any.

Aside from getting research opportunities at your home universities there are also REU programs and other internships such as NASA USRP. These are eight to ten week paid programs where you learn to do research under a professor and occasionally get published. The applications tend to be due in December or January depending on the program. Most are highly competitive so do not be discouraged if you do not get in (I didn’t  make it in one). As I have not done one I do not really know what they are about but they look really nice. Especially the part where you get paid.

I should also mention that working for a professor at your home University can either be for units/credits or pay. Sometimes both if you get a stipend and a research grant. Though it only works out to be about ¢70 an hour.

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Geometry can be found in many places.

Geometry can be found in many places.

Talking with Freshman about how school is going leads often to several topics: transferring, study abroad and research.

A lot of students, not just freshman, have a desire to transfer away to another college. Sometimes there is a legitimate excuse involving degrees or available courses, often it is for reasons that should not cause a transfer.

Most of the time it is homesickness. For the first time people are living away from home and the distance is hard to accept. They want to transfer to a closer school and the closer school tends to be one not as good as the current school (UC to CSU). This is a bad idea. Part of college is the growing experience of living on ones own away from the immediate support of family. It is one of the only ways to gradually break free of dependance and learn how to be ones own person.

Those that get homesick also go home many weekends during the quarter. This only makes the problem worse. Going home during the quarter (like every weekend) undermines the independence built during the weeks. Sometimes though the family will not let the student go and come to visit or demand that they come home through guilt or other nefarious means (pie would be one of them).

The solution is the next topic I push on Freshman: Study Abroad. It is not just a great idea it should be mandatory. Getting outside of the normal and into a new culture is a life changing experience. It doubles as a great way to force the separation between dependance on family and the student. It is not an easy thing to do, it is hard at times but living abroad really builds a persons confidence in themselves. I found it helpful to also define who I am as a person and what I want to do with my life (turns out it was more school).

Besides, the friends met while studying abroad will be friends for a lot longer then those casually made through classes. I guess another encouraging points is that the drinking age is a lot lower abroad, so is the exchange rate a the moment (not when I went).

Often the excuse is that it is hard to do with their major. I just want to say that I did it as a physics major and I will be graduating on time within four years.

Lastly there is research. Many people do not take advantage of one of the best opportunities offered at Universities which is working for a professor. Any major can do it. I had a friend working for a political science professor looking up articles, summarizing them, contacting others in the field for information and generally loving it. It is easy to find something to do in the hard sciences, it is almost expected. Soft sciences could be trickier but if you are persistent it is possible. Liberal arts may be more difficult to find work for but I know it is possible, I have a friends doing research in the linguistics department.

Many people do not think they are qualified to do research. This type of thinking will always prevent a research job from opening up. If a professor asks if you can do something never say no, say that you will learn fast. Most of the time the research position is so that you learn how to do research not performing actual research (at first anyway). It also looks great when applying to graduate school or related fields.

Later I will write on the best way to find a research position as it may seem a daunting task. The key point to remember is that a professor can only say no. They will not go around to other professors or schools talking about this person who dared to ask them for a research position. They do not have that kind of time.

In short: you get over homesickness, study abroad at least for a summer or a quarter (a year is way better) and get a research position as soon as possible.

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It was not having a fun time.

It was not having a fun time.

Taking a few photos while walking between the bike racks and my class I noticed this large mushroom resting peacefully at the base of a eucalyptus tree. Then I saw the battle wounds it had suffered from what I assume was a rogue mushroom on a fungicidal rampage. Luckily this one was able to grow back in time.

I finally have a project, sort of, in the lab I am working in. I was wary of the idea of working there for the first week or so, but now that I have an actual project (and signed up for it officially) I am feeling better. In essence the professor received a long wave infrared bolometer from a local company and now he wants to do something with it. That is where I come in. Likely by working with some other undergraduates we are going to design, build and do something with this camera.

What is a bolometer, you may ask. A normal camera is made of silicon elements that when it is hit by visible light give off an electron. The electrons are then read off and from there the amount of light that hit the silicon elements is interpreted as pixels on the screen. A bolometer is sort of the same thing. Because long wave infrared light is not energetic enough to excite electrons each pixel element is instead a suspended piece of germanium with a thermistor (resistor that changes resistance with temperature) on it. The incoming light heats up the germanium element, the heat is converted to a voltage and the voltage converted into a reading of the incoming light. From there an image is created. They are very hard to make.

Now about the camera itself. It is set to work in the 8-15 micron range of wavelengths. It has a fixed 50mm lens with some unknown aperture. The minimum focal distance is around six feet, it is made to focus at much longer distances. It is roughly a .3 megapixel camera (the newer models are up to .6 megapixels). I have been told that it is expensive, no price, just expensive. This project should be fun.

I can’t wait until I can get a nice infrared portrait shot of myself.

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Edinburgh Observatory

Edinburgh Observatory

Up until last year my only exposure to astrophysics has been through books like The Universe in a Nutshell and Hyperspace. After starting to take a upper division course in astrophysics I have found that it is harder then other subjects in physics and much more interesting. I took these classes at the Edinburgh Observatory while studying there last year (one problem of the class was the great views of Edinburgh it offered), because of them I am planning on continuing in astrophysics or maybe space physics.

To get into graduate school for physics I need research experience, except they say that they don’t require it. But they do. Over the past two months I have been procrastinating contacting professors about a research position in the fall. Finally I realized I need to do it sooner or later. I crafted e-mails for four different professors in the UCSB Astrophysics group asking if they would possibly perhaps know of anything about an opening in the fall for an undergraduate. It would have been easier but I was someone they never met asking out of the blue. Two said no outright, I am thankful that were honest and in such a timely fashion. Another might have a position but I would need to learn python before the fall. The fourth was interested. I called the next week and I now will have a place in his lab come the fall. I get to pick out what looks interesting in the lab once I get there, I also get units for it!

Knowing that I will have some research experience by the time I apply for graduate school I looked at the schools I had placed in my top schools category. This time I looked at non-academic aspects: namely location and archery teams. My list had four schools: Stanford Applied Physics, University of British Columbia, University of New Hampshire and Montana State University. For location the first three have good locations, Stanford is nearby, UBC is near Seattle and my Uncle and from what I can gather there is an entire branch of my family in the northeast I have never met. Then someone asked me where Montana State was located, I knew that, it is in Bozeman. Where was Bozeman? In Montana, somewhere. So I google mapped it and discovered something. Montana was not where I thought Montana was. I expected it to be sort of south of Utah, don’t know why, it could be because I have not really been to many states aside from California, Hawaii and Alaska. Now that I know that Montana State is near North Dakota I have moved it down to my secondary school list which leaves only three as the forerunners for schools I really want to go too.

The next aspect I considered was archery. At Edinburgh I was in the Archery Club and participated in several competitions including the British Universities Sports Association indoor archery competition. I really liked archery, sadly there was no place for me to shoot at home or at Santa Barbara. The closest I could get were outdoor ranges geared toward hunters with compound bows (that would be my brother). So I was happy to find that the three schools left on my list had recurve archery teams or at least places to shoot recurve bows. So whichever I get into I can look forward to starting up archery again, maybe since I am in another country and another league I can pass as a novice for another year.

Hopefully this time I will be able to buy my own bow.

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