The Levels of Research

Colloquially, we use the word research to generally mean doing your own digging, studying, and analysis of a topic. For example “I need to research the best recipe for potato salad,” or “Go research what mayoral candidate you should vote for.” It usually starts with a question like “What’s the best potato salad?” Then you doing some searching and reading of articles, reviews, comments, and analysis by other people. Then based on that information, you can make a decision. In scientific research, it’s kind of the same idea. You ask a question (how or why does thing A cause effect B), then you do some reading on what’s been done in the area (Bob studied thing A and saw effect C. Tiffany saw effect B but with thing D). The last important step, making a decision, is where things depart from the common usage of research. After the reading step, there’s a test step where you use what you’ve read to try to answer your question, assuming it hasn’t been answered already. This involves doing experiments, getting data, wearing lab coats and the other trapping usually associated with the idea of scientific research. However, this is not usually the most important part. The important part is the analysis of the data and the drawing of fundamental data-backed conclusions to “make a decision” on the original question. It’s in this last conclusion step where science happens and is usually the hardest part for new students and researchers to grasp. Without a data supported conclusion, you just have a bunch of numbers that sort of say something, but you don’t really know the fundamental details.

At the university, there are usually 3 levels of research: undergrad, Masters, and Ph.D. They increase in difficulty, depth, and expectations. The level of detail expected can generally be broken up into the various steps in a given research effort: test and observation, correlation and comparison to known ideas, and proposal of new idea supported by the data.

The first, test and observation, is typically where undergrad research students function. Undergrads usually worked with or assist a graduate student. Assuming they’re not relegated purely to chores like cleaning test tubes, an undergrad’s main tasks are to assist with experiments. That may include sample preparation or experimental set up, test operation, and data collection. That’s what most people associate with research, the actual experiment. More experiences undergrads may move to the observation stage, also called data analysis. Here, you not only take the data, but you also try to process that data and look for trends or behaviors like does thing A cause effect B to increase or decrease. These are usually pretty straightforward observation. This is usually where an undergrad would end, since moving to the next step of correlation and comparison requires some specific knowledge of the subject the student may not have. And many undergrad thesis focus mainly on presenting data, trends, and maybe touching on possible causes based on existing knowledge.

The second step, correlation and comparison, is where Master’s research typically sits. To compare, you need to read and know what to compare against. Thus MS students is where a lot of literature reading begins. By reading and understanding the literature, you can make more educated arguments about your observations from the data. Often times MS research will use existing formulas and theories learned from the literature to support the conclusions. For example if you observe A causes B to increase, and you find that other people saw the same behavior in a similar but not the exact same experiment, then you could make the comparison to that work. Alternatively, your data may fit in the general trend of other people’s results, allowing you to correlate how much B should change for a given level of A. This level of research present a deeper understanding of the physics by using similar research and existing understanding and equations as a guideline for your work. You are still contributing new information to the greater body of knowledge, but there’s usually not enough time to try to develop new understanding and equations.

The last step, proposal of new ideas, is what’s required of Ph.D. students. A Ph.D. student has to do everything an undergrad or MS student does, but then has to go one step further. They must take the same data and observations, the existing understanding and equations, and discover new understanding or equations that describe the fundamental physics. Continuing the example of A causes B to increase, perhaps the existing understanding says it occurs because of a phase change in B. At the Ph.D. level, you must discover why does A cause B to change phase, that’s the fundamental physics. This is usually pretty hard and requires significant time investment to take careful measurements, analyze each set of tests to help determine what conditions to test next, and lot and lots of paper reading to understand what other people are saying or doing in your area. And there will be many set backs and errors along the way, resulting in redoing things until it’s right.

So in summary, the three level of research can be summed up generally in the questions of what, how, and why. What happens? How does it happen? Why does it happen? For a Ph.D. you have to answer all of those, and hopefully enjoy doing it, otherwise a research career may not be for you.

Technological or Societal Solutions?

I sometimes have an internal debate on what I think is the best solution to major world problems such as climate change, poverty, hunger, and so on. You hear these issues talked about heavily in political terms as to who’s responsible and why should any one government get involved. Well the answer to why governments should get involved is because they have the most power and ability to instigate change, much more so than any one person or group. But change requires money, effort, and most importantly of all, giving a damn. The last is awfully hard to find these days. Human are very selfish when it comes down to it. Our views are heavily tinted by our immediate surrounding, people, and concerns. So it’s hard to care as much about an abstract concept like climate change or world hunger when you live in a temperature climate, have air conditioning and heating, and plenty of food to eat.

Being an engineer and scientist, I tend to believe that if we only had the correct technology, that these worldwide problems could cease becoming problems altogether. If we can perfect carbon and methane remediation and clean power, there would be no man-made climate change. If we can create super cheap energy and hardy crops, we could push back poverty and hunger. We could save the world if only we had the technology.

But here’s the debate: which is the better way? I realized even if we did have the magic technology, implementing them would eventually run into politics, especially if they threaten some industry’s profit margin. Nothing makes politicians take notice faster than a lobbyist coming to them with a donation and a story about a new threat to their interests. But, in all of history, old ideas, traditionas, and technologies eventually get replaced by newer, better, and more efficient ideas and technologies. For example, The horse and carriage were replaced by the model T and cars once we discovered the internal combustion engine. Now we can go farther for less money. Clothes making also made the transition from old to new long ago. In pre-industrial times, individual tailors and seamstresses made clothes by hand, and most people own only a handful of outfits. Industrialization, the assemblyline, machines, and the computer chip largely killed the clothes-making profession, except for specialists. But in return we can buy shirts, dresses, and pants for very low prices. I imagine during those transition periods, there was a lot of argument and distain for the new technology by those involved and invested in the old ways.

Energy is currently in the transition period I believe. Coal, natural gas, and oil have been the foundation of civilization since they first found you could burn coal and oil. However, we know there is a limited amount of the stuff around. Yes, even the oil companies, which is why they all put some money into looking for new oil sources and new energy technologies. However, they are very dependent on the existing market in fossil fuels to keep their business running and their stockholders happy. At the same time, solar power, wind power, and electric cars are slowly becoming more mainstream and forming a small but growing portion of our global civilization. Various countries have agreed to the Paris Climate Accords which among other things states that we should all try to move towards a larger percent of renewable power and away from fossil fuels. I feel in the next 50-100 years our energy grid will be dominated by renewable energy and electric or fuel cell cars. Even oil companies project that current resources won’t last more than 100-200 years. At that point, they’ll be completely out of business since there will be no oil anywhere, or anywhere reachable. That would seem like a good reason to start in the direction of renewable energy right now and fast. However, remember humans are not only selfish, but short-lived. 100 years sounds like a short time to me, but I know I won’t be around to see it, and neither will all the investors and executives companies. They may have a greater interest in the here and now since what happens 100 years from now doesn’t affect them. That is one of the greatest failings of the human mind and civilization I think. The lack of foresight and empathy with the future may one day damage the planet irrevocably. While I may not be alive in 100 years, my children will be, and then my grandchildren will inherit the world we’re building now, for good or ill. In Eastern culture in general, there is the strong belief that one’s main goal in life is to make life better for your children. My parents sacrificed and worked hard so I could have more opportunities and a better life. My dad always says children should exceed their parents since each generation strives for the next. I also personally believe that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than you found it. That’s my general belief for most situations, do more good than harm and leave it better for the future.

So in the end, there is no one magical technological solution to the world’s problems. All solutions require the cooperation of people and thus governments and companies. And as long as people are involved, there will be politics and self interests. As engineers and scientists, we are trained to see the future by learning from the past, so we should strive to not only develop the world saving technologies, but encourage everyone else to keep the future in mind.

TA or RA

The Fall semester is ending and Spring will start soon. It’s about this time, or sometimes even earlier when departments and grad students will ask about funding for the Spring semester. For those not familiar with graduate school funding, grad students usually do not pay for school out of their pockets. There are monies available from the university, the research advisor, or external fellowships that pay for entirely or partially for tuition as well as a stipend. So it’s kind of like getting paid to go to grad school, though they money you see in the form of a paycheck is not a lot. A good chunk of the money is directly put towards paying for the tuition. So why the grad student may technically be budgeted $40,000 per year, half or more may go towards tuition. $20,000 isn’t a lot, but usually enough to live on for a few years while you finish school, assuming you don’t live in super expensive places like New York, DC, or LA.

Now back to the different monies. First, grad funding is typically reserved and used to allow students to do research toward a thesis or dissertation. Section, not all degrees or programs will have graduate funding available. In STEM fields there’s usually a lot of research while in humanities there isn’t as much. All three will pay for tuition and stipend, though the amount for stipend may differ. TAs or teaching assistants are paid for by the university, or the department more likely. A TA’s job is to teach labs, grade, or otherwise assist the faculty with the undergraduate courses and sometimes graduate courses. That takes a significant chunk of time, maybe 15-20 hours a week in total. On top of TA duties and their own courses, the student will try to do their research towards their thesis. RAs or research assistants are paid to work on a specific research project defined by the research contract or grant their research advisor is working on. The RA’s job is to do the research as dictated. While this sounds perfect as you’re getting paid to do research which, it assumes the dictated research is what the student wants to do and can lead to a thesis. I’ve known many students who have worked on projects as a RA that they didn’t care for or was too short-term to lead to a thesis. They did it because it paid them, but didn’t move them forward towards their degree in a good fashion.

Fellowships are perhaps the best money because it is given to the student with no prescribed teaching duty or research project. So if the fellowship student can find the appropriate research advisors who has a project that fits the student’s desired topic and can lead to a thesis, then he or she gets paid to work on exactly what they want. This is of course a rare situation as there are many more grad students each year than there are fellowships.

Now the question of which is better, a TA or RA? It’s more of a personal choice I think. If the RA project is something you’re interested in and can lead to a thesis then it’s clearly the better option. However, an additional caveat about RA’s is since the funding comes from a contract or grant that will end at some point, the RA’s funding may end at some point. Hopefully it’ll last through your thesis or dissertation, but not always. On the other hand, TAs positions will usually continue year after year as long as the university has money, so it’s a more guaranteed funding. The TA is also more free to do the research on their choosing, as long as the advisor agrees. Of course the downside is TAs has to grade or teach labs which eats into their available research time. I have had students in the past that prefered a TA position to RA because the RA research was of no interest to them and they’re rather do the TA and continue their desired research and hopefully find RA funding for their research in the future.

If you’re considering grad school in a STEM field, you should definitely look at applying for fellowships since it gives you the most control and freedom in your research. But in general you shouldn’t be paying for grad school if you’re a good desirable candidate. Most fellowship deadline are in the Fall semester, a year before you’d start grad school or get the money. You should also contact faculty in your research interest area at the university to see if they have RA positions available. The answer will usually be no or I don’t know as most faculty use their RA funding for students to do the work as soon as possible, but never hurts to ask.

Are You Really “Bad at Math”?

I was visiting with a friend at a party and playing a card game. One of the players said nonchalantly “I’m bad a math” like it was a joke when we were totaling scores. Everyone smiled and continued on. I’ve heard that phrase a lot in the classroom and office hours. It’s something I’ve heard a lot growing up as well, usually from those of my peers who were struggling in math or science class. I also tend to hear it from adults. Being “bad at math” has become an odd badge of honor for people. In the U.S. it’s become socially acceptable to be bad at math. But if you visit any eastern country, no one would willing admit being bad at math. It’s an embarrassment. It’s almost like saying you’re illiterate, which is something no one wants to be admit because being able to read is one of the most basic skills. It should be the same with math. No one should be bad at math, and most probably aren’t in reality.

When we say math, people commonly think arithmetic, the nuts and bolts of addition, multiplication, fractions, etc. Math is really about patterns and logic, two things humans are quite good at naturally. Pattern recognition is instinctive to most animals and part of the survival instinct. Humans have developed that ability further and put numbers and logic to patterns. In everyday like, we all put that ability to use when we look at the clock and realize we’re late to a meeting just by the location of the hands. So we’re all naturally good at the basics of math, but it’s the technical details we tend to get lost in.

I give a short speech at the beginning of my lower level engineering courses. I explain how engineering is a skill, like music and sport. It’s something you have to practice to get better, and just about everyone can get better. It will be easier for some than others just like playing a musical instrument. Math is much the same. Being good at math means developing the skill to do math. And like all skills, it takes practice. You just have to be willing to do the practice, and I think that’s where people fail. Truthfully, if you don’t want to play the violin, you’re not going to want to practice, and you’re not going to get better. So if you have a distaste for math, then you’re not likely to want to practice. However it’s a skill we all should have. And I think you’ll find, like most skills, it starts hard and is a chore, but as you get better you’ll enjoy it more (or at least hate it less). So go out and practice the math skill.

Applying to be an Astronaut

NASA’s astronaut candidate job opening closed a few months ago and they’re reporting over 18,000 applications, the largest number in the history of the space program. I was one of them. It was one of my childhood dreams to be an astronaut.¬†I was always interested in space and I watched a lot of Star Trek. So of course I wanted to be in space and explore space. As I grew older and went to college, I realized I was more interested in the technology and science than just being in space. So if I couldn’t go to space, I’d build the things that took you to space. I ended up doing a Ph.D. in space propulsion and now I teach it in college. But that kid desire to be an astronaut never quite died.

I know now that an astronaut is much more a scientist than an explorer. They’re nothing like TV or movies would make astronauts seem. Most of their days are highly structured with tasks to do and experiments to run. There are dozens of experiments going on at once on board the ISS and the few astronauts have to take care of them all. And they aren’t experts in all of them, so there’s a lot of direction from the ground,¬†following procedures, and reading manuals. So it’s a lot less glamorous that my young self imagined. But my older self is very interested in the science and technology side of space exploration. I guess as we get older we replace youthful fantasy with learned interest.

My chances of being picked over the other 18,000 applicants is very very slim. Nevertheless I asked my wife since if it does happen, things would change, and she’s not a fan of me possibly dying, though the odds are small. But she’s kind of amused by it and we agreed I can apply and we’d discuss it further if I by some chance get selected and past the initial rounds of screening. We’ll see if my childhood dreams come true.

The Trap of the “Science Hammer”

At the most recent AIAA SciTech conference, I met a gentlemen from the Air Force Academy who teaches there and reviews research proposals for the Air Force. He gave a talk to the plasma aerodynamics group on plasma actuators and why those proposals have not been funded much recently. He also raised a point, which is the focus of this post, that plasma is not always the solution to the problem and we as a community should stop using it as a proverbial hammer to hit every problem nail.

First, a little background and explanation. As scientists and researchers, we are all trained in some specialty, whether it’s plasma physics, rocket propulsion, high speed aerodynamics, piston engines, mammalian habitats, insect DNA, etc. Of course some specialties are broader than others. So we tend to do research in our specific areas, or areas that are similar enough that we can bring a part of our experience to bear. The further the research is to our core specialty, the hard it is and less likely others will fund you or trust your results. Yes, there is some bias in science. So this specialty is what I called the “science hammer”. Like a craftsman, we have one or two types of hammers (knowledge) in our tool belt. So when we encounter a science problem, our first thought is to hit it with our hammers. Another way to say that is when you only have a hammer as your tool, then every problem is a nail to be hit.

I have been thinking on this “hammer” and the suggestion the gentlemen at SciTech gave. My hammer is plasma. I sometimes jokingly say plasma can solve all your problems, or I’m always looking for things to point a plasma at. Now plasma is a pretty energy inefficient process by its very nature. Unlike a fire, you have to continuously supply the plasma with energy and fuel to keep it going. The fire will keep burning as long as there’s fuel. Once started, the fire provides its own energy. So in many cases, especially aerospace applications where energy is limited, plasma may not be the best solution. The example the gentleman gave was plasma actuators for flow control on airplane wings. Plasma actuators can improve the flow and reduce drag on wings. But the practical question becomes is it worth it? It takes extra energy to generate and sustain the plasma, and it seems at least for plasma actuators the benefits are not worth the cost.

Now there has been considerable interesting science to come out of the last 15 years of research into plasma actuators. So all is not lost. But the funding agencies have learned a lesson if you will. They’re more cautious about plasma-based solutions since they recognize the issues with plasmas. So in my position as a principle investigator looking for funding, I am not trying to by smarter about what I apply plasma to. It has to be credible, doable, and provide a net benefit. I have also begun to look at way to use plasma not as the solution, but as a diagnostic or tool to study a phenomenon. I’ve been talking with another faculty about using plasma actuators to study flows. Hopefully the advantages of plasma can be brought to bear and without worry about its overall efficiency since it doesn’t have to fly.

How Do You Find a Planet?

Recently, scientists have announced the potential existence of another planet in our solar system out past Pluto. If true, this would bring our planet count back up to nine, after the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet. Planet 9 is theorized to be a gas giant, larger than Earth, exist out in the Kuiper belt, and have a very long orbit around the sun, some 200 years. This is a very cool discovery, but how do you find a planet in the solar system? You’d think they’d all be found by now.

Well, the scientists first got hint of a large planet out in the Kuiper belt by observing the dwarf planet Sedna which is in the belt. Sedna was found in 2013 and the scientists noticed it’s orbit was odd. But what does “odd” mean exactly? First lets talk about gravity and orbital motion. In space, gravity is the primary force that drives the motion of planets, stars, and asteroids. In the simplest case, we can consider just two bodies, one large main body that is fixed and one smaller that orbits around the main body. For example the Sun and the Earth. This is called 2-body orbital motion. It assume that the main body is so much larger that we can neglect the mass and thus gravity of the smaller body. In 2-body motion, the smaller body follows a constant and nice elliptical orbit around the main body.

In reality though there are lot of bodies out there, and every object exerts gravity on every other object. Just in our solar system there are 8 large planets. So those planets are constantly tugging on each other even though the sun is the one controlling the main motion (which is why everything orbits the sun). Jupiter is the largest planet and it has a noticible effect on everything in the solar system. Jupiter may be partly responsible for the existance of the human species actually. Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull may have acted like a asteroid shield of sorts and altered the trajectory of space rocks that would have hit Earth in the early days of life on this planet. So the planets, and especially Jupiter cause the Earth’s orbit around the sun to be changed slowly over time. This is still happening today. But the changes are too small for us to notice, but we can measure the deviation from the 2-body orbit with scientific instruments.

The scientists noticed something similar with Sedna. After watching it and calculating its position over time, we can determine the orbit it follows. We can use computers to account for the perturbing effects of Jupiter and the other planets on Sedna. The asteroids and other objects in the Kuiper belt are all too small compared to the planets to have a significant effect on Sedna’s orbit. These days we’re pretty good at calculating orbits if we know all the major bodies involved. They can see where Sedna is at some later time to confirm that the calculated orbit is correct . Now what the scientists probably saw was that Sedna was not moving according to the calculated orbit, which means there’s a large body with a strong gravity that wasn’t accounted for. The deviation form the calculated orbit was probably very small, maybe a few kilometers, which in space is minuscule but enough to suggest there’s something else out there. So the scientists spend some time and ran more computer simulations using the measured position data of Sedna. They probably created many different bodies in the Kuiper belt and calculated their effect on Sednas orbit looking for one that would match the actual data. The result seems to be a large gas giant about 10 times bigger than Earth in a large egg-shaped orbit around the sun out past Pluto. Now comes the challenge of trying to find planet 9.

What will come next will likely be close examination of the scientist’s data to double check their work. If others agree, then they will likely take measurements of other objects in the Kuiper belt over time and see how the behave and if planet 9 could be responsible for any oddities. Finally, after watching enough Kuiper belt objects, we’ll have a good guess of where planet 9 could be. Then it becomes a game of cat a mouse as we turn all our telescopes towards a small patch of sky and try to find one plants in the blackness of space. It’ll be a long process since finding planets or stars requires a lot of data and you’re looking (or the computer is looking) for very small changes in light from one image to the next, on a pixel by pixel basis. But if we find it, it’s be the first planet since Pluto was found in 1930.