Saturday, August 24, 2013

Onward to the future...

One week ago from yesterday I successfully defended my dissertation, "Mesoscale light-matter interactions," which means that I am effectively finished with my graduate school career (woot woot!). I would offer my dissertation for viewing here on the web, but due to publication restraints associated with UCF, I have to wait one year before disseminating the work publicly. This is too bad, but the decision to do this was largely out of my control.

I'm excited to be moving on to a slightly new line of work. Later this year, I'll be moving to EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland to work on STORM microscopes and problems in single molecule biophysics.

I'm particularly excited about this work because now I'll be able to apply my knowledge of optics to biology problems. Most of my PhD work was focused on designing new optics-based techniques and then looking for a problem to solve; I hope to become immersed enough in the biophysics community that I can identify unknowns in biology first and then design measurements to address these unknowns afterward. I think a problem-driven route is a more appropriate for the design of optical sensing techniques and I just can't wait to begin.

During my last year at graduate school, I've also begun several endeavors that I believe make me a much better researcher and contributor to science. Some of these new practices include:
  1. Following a paradigm that makes my research as open as possible. This includes making easily reproducible code and sharing data openly. (I'm exploring the use of Figshare and following @openscience on Twitter. Looking at these resources are great starting points).
  2. Related to the first point, I'm writing a Python package for processing dynamic light scattering data and simulating experiments that I intend to release freely and open sourced. I think that my expertise in this area would serve many others extremely well, since DLS is often treated like a "black box" technique by a lot of people who use it for macromolecular studies.
  3. Though my writing has waned since I began serious work on my defense, I want to begin writing again as a means of exploring more topics in research and academia.
  4. I'm structuring my own research around simple questions. I think simple questions, such as "how do cells respond to light" form great, long term questions in science. More complicated questions often lead to short term research goals.
I'll expound on this last point in a later post. Overall, though, I'm beginning to see how I can contribute to my field beyond just publishing.

I won't get started in my new position until November or December. In the mean time, my wife and I are going on a long climbing and hiking trip out West, so you may have to be patient if you're waiting for posts between September and November.

And if you're still working on your PhD or Masters degree, keep up the hard work. It will pay off :)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Making presentation slides flow

Today I gave the first practice talk for my defense presentation to my research group. Prior to today I had been dragging my feet with working on it because making a presentation is fairly boring. It also requires a lot of work, so yesterday I put together quite a few, rather dense slides without taking the time to ensure that the content on each side had a certain "flow," that is,  a logical spatial order to the information presented on them. Now, the slides made sense in the order that they came in, but the information on each individual slide was not so well ordered with respect to other text and figures on the same slide.

Of course, being the first practice, it was a bit rough. But one thing in particular struck me as insightful. I had attempted to tell a story for each slide based on the information that the slides contained. However, since the information was mixed up on any given slide, I often stumbled with the explanations because my attention would jump randomly from one region of the slide to the next.

In prior presentations I took the time to add animations such that graphs or illustrations would appear on a slide as I talked about them. This was a good thing since it automatically gave some nice order to each slide. More importantly, it kept my speech coherent because I wouldn't get confused about what point to talk about.

The downside to making slides like these is that it takes a lot more time. For example, if I have one plot with three curves on it and I want to make the curves appear one at a time as I click the mouse, then I have to in reality make three separate plots!

In the end, though, I think it's worth it. It keeps me talking coherently, it makes the slides aesthetically pleasing, and it enforces a flow with which information is communicated to the audience.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Why we should just say no

Well, it's certainly been a while since I last wrote a post. I have a good reason for it, though. My defense is in less than two weeks and life has been crazy. I'm a bit sorry that I haven't had the time to write lately since it's a good stress outlet, but my mental energies have been absolutely and continuously drained by other tasks.

It's perhaps ironic then that I'm writing this post because it was my lack of time to think about writing that inspired me to, well, write.

From the last few months I've learned the value of saying "no" to requests that people ask of me. It was never really necessary before and I was usually happy to oblige people who needed help with something.

These days, however, I must say "no" if I want to finish the things I need to graduate. And I've come to appreciate that saying "no" to things should apply to more people than just graduate students nearing the end of their work.

I think academics have a hard time with trying to limit the number of projects and tasks they take on. As a result, they and their lab members may become overworked and so attention to detail slips. This often leads to sloppy science, such as not checking hypotheses and assumptions, making conclusions on poorly measured data, etc. At the extreme, it might also be fatal to academic careers.

Unfortunately, I think sloppy science has become very common because, in part, people just take on too many things. I can think of a personal reason for why academics take on too much. I become excited at the start of a new project, but bored near the end, so I tend to start more than I can handle while letting others die off. I shouldn't do this, but I do.

Recognizing that this is an issue is the first step to fixing it. I am glad to see that other academics are slowly fighting back against the status quo and saying "no" to too many tasks. I realize it might be hard at times, but it is very necessary to stay happy and to do good science.