The Changing Purpose of Professional Conferences

Last week, I along with two of my students flew to the west coast to attend the AIAA SciTech 2016 conference. It’s the AIAA’s largest conference each year and combines just about every discipline they serve except for maybe propulsion (there’s a separate conference for that). There were thousands of attendees (~4000 I was told at a committee meeting) and 1000+ technical papers and presentations. I never counted. I’ve been going to conferences for a long time and I’ve noticed what I’ve paid attention to and my personal goals at conferences have changed. That makes sense. As your career level changes, your job description changes, and thus what you need or look for to get the job done also changes. So let go through what a conference may mean for different people in academia and what they may want to focus on or try and get out of it.

Undergraduate Students
If you’re an undergrad presenting at or attending a conference, it’s pretty much a spectacle for you. You should be there mainly to meet people, see what research sounds cool, grab vendor swag, and have a good time. There’s almost no need for you to shake hands and schmooze besides for the fun of it. It’s always fun to talk to new people and learn new things. If you tell people you’re an undergrad, you will most likely get advice, asked for or not. The majority of conference attendees are academics, industry, and government professionals. In most cases they’re farther along in their career path. As social animals, humans like to share experiences and give advice. I think giving advice makes us feel good on some level. So take advantage of this if you don’t mind advice and ask questions that pertain to what you want to do. If you’re a senior, it’s also a great chance to ask about employment opportunities. A lot of times you may get directed to the company’s website, but if you hit it off with someone and give them a business card or get their email, that may help get your foot in the door.

Graduate Students
If you’re a grad student at a conference, you’re mostly likely presenting research. If you’re a first or second year grad student, you’re operating on a similar level at conferences as undergrads. You’re still considered “new” to the field and you should mainly go to present your work, meet people, learn things, and have fun. You’ll also get lots of advice.

If you’re a senior grad student looking to graduate, then your focus changes. Now you’re looking to meet people not just for fun, but to look for job opportunities. This puts a bit of pressure on you since there’s now something at stake, namely your career. Looking for employment at conferences is not like a job fair. Mostly people aren’t actively seeking people to hire at conferences. So your best bet is to strike up conversations, talk about what you do, ask about what they do, and see if there are mutual needs. One strategy I’ve found that works most of the time is to say you’re looking for a job and ask if they have any advice. Going back to humans are social animals, you’ll almost always get some kind of advice. They’ll also usually ask what kind of career you’d like, whether it’s academia, government, industry, or otherwise. If you don’t have a preference, then pick the answer that matched with the person you’re talking to. Getting their advice will put them in a more helpful frame of mind since it make the speak feel like a mentor which engenders a bit of desire to help. Then you can ask if they know of any openings in their place of work. Most of the time the answer may be no, but they’ll usually trade business cards with you. Then it’s your job to email them after the conference to follow up and see if the mentor feeling lasts long enough for them to poke around in their work place for you.

This is where I fall right now. As an academic, and a new one, my biggest goal is probably to try and get funding and collaboration. Both aren’t easy. In the same way people don’t go to conferences to hire people, they don’t go to give out grants either. The government agencies all have defined processes to give research funding. At a conference you can talk to the program managers and get a sense of what they’re interested in, but in my experience the program managers tend to be general in their advice. No one ever says “write this proposal and I’ll fund it.” Well, there is the exception that was the BP oil spill when certain agencies were funding lots of research in oil cleanup.  But unless there’s some crisis that needs immediate attention, program managers aren’t usually specific.

Industry managers are the same way, though they may be more willing to give you specific interests based on their current projects and products. It is possible to start the process to funding with industry from a conference by meeting them and setting up a later visit.

The second part of conferences is collaboration. We academics are very specialized in our research because we’re just one person. While the university may have hundreds of research areas, we don’t represent the whole university. So to do complicated research, you need help. A lot of times that help can come from other people at your university. Sometimes though the specialty you need is not at your home school, especially for smaller schools. Thus you have to look elsewhere. Conferences are a pretty good place for that since you get to see the kinds of research different groups are doing through the presentations. Most of the time people are willing to talk about collaborations, especially academics. The question of money and funding will always come up, but the first hurdle is to get the conversation started.




2015 Year Look Back and Forward

This is the last post of 2015, the next one will be in January. At the end of each year, I try and think about what happened this year and then plan for what should be done next year, at least professionally. So my job consists of three parts: teaching, research, and service.

Teaching is pretty simple. I get assigned classes, I teach those classes. As long as I don’t fail more than 50% of the class, then I’m doing fine. I have a bit of a perfectionist streak, a desire to fix problems where I see them, and a drive to always do better. So this last year, I may have spent too much time and effort to improve my teaching and courses. Part of me believes there’s no such things as too much time to improve yourself and what you do, but as a tenure-track faculty, teaching is only part of my job, and often the smallest part as seen by my colleagues and supervisors. So in 2016 I will strive to hold the same standards I’ve developed to date, but hold off on putting in extra effort to develop new projects, lessons, or other activities for my classes.

Research is arguably the biggest part of my job, though it’s the one students rarely see. Our research is what brings fame and funding to the university. Unfortunately, research is also not a one man undertaking. While I can teach my courses without assistance from anyone else, I can’t do research at any reasonable rate just by myself. Thus comes in graduate students. As an experimentalist, I am heavily dependent on my graduate students to do the bulk of the research and data collection. My time during the week is often taken up by classes, meetings, and office hours, with very little left for me to personally go into the lab to set up the experiment and get data. This dependence on students means their successes and failures are your successes and failures. unfortunately I’ve had some recent troubles with graduate students and limited successes. This year we have not published a single paper, which is not a good sign. It indicates an unproductive year. In hindsight, it was a bit unproductive. Things got done, but not enough to get publications. I did pick up two new students and lose one student mid degree, so there was quite a bit of change. New students take time to get up to the speed and become productive. We usually say a Masters student can do enough work to write one publication by the end of their two years, at which point they graduate. That’s quite a long build up time, especially on a 5-7 year tenure clock. Ph.D. students have the same build up, but they can keep doing work and writing papers after the first 2 years. So after 6 years, a Ph.D. student can write 4-5 papers, where as a series of 3 Masters students can write 3.

For 2016, my plan is to take that time from teaching and put it into research. I will be at the lab more regularly and even try to do some of my own data collection. I will also push my students harder. There are 4 potential papers that can be written or are being written. On the funding side, there are 4 potential NSF opportunities and 1 NASA in 2016 that I know of. There may be more NASA ones over the year as they are released. DoD funding is harder to get as the funding is generally decided by the program manager instead of a panel. So your research has to align very closely with what the program manager is looking for, and some times it’s hard to get them to tell you what exactly they want. But all you can do is try, and in the mean time continue to do research, get data, and make the next proposal better.

On the service side, I thing I also over committed this year. I am in charge of the college of engineering’s undergraduate research program, editor for the local AIAA section newsletter, member of two AIAA technical committees, and trying to organize short courses for the technical committees. While each of these in of themselves don’t take a lot of time and are sporadic, together they seem to be taking up a significant number of hours each month. While I enjoy doing these activities, they are taking time away from, what else, research. So in 2016, I plan to reduce my service activities and possible drop one or more. Teaching, research, and service is a tough balancing act, and this last year I think I went off the track. So next year I strive to bring everything more in balance to be successful, which typically means more research, always more research.

Bigger, Better, Faster, and…Cheaper?

My research is in plasma physics and propulsion with a focus on practical applications. To develop new technologies you have to push against the boundary of what is known, and that take times and usually happens in small incremental steps. In other words the new technology is only a little better than the current technology. For some things like computers and smartphones, a little better seems to sell, thus a new iphone every 6 months, even though they may not be a substantial improvement over the previous version. However in spacecrafts and propulsion, a little better isn’t good enough. The motto of propulsion has always been bigger, better, and faster engines. However in recent times an additional property has been added, cheaper. Now that seems to be at odds with the previous three. How do you get a bigger engine for less money?

Better and cheaper is usually an oxymoron for technology. To make something better, usually in performance, requires improvements in materials, science, coding, and so forth. All that of course takes time which costs money. Then if you have to use higher performance materials or components, those cost more money. Lets say you want a higher performance jet engine for airplanes. Maybe you run the engine faster or hotter to get more thrust. That requires higher strength materials to withstand the higher temperatures and stresses. If the engine runs faster, you may need more robust gears or shafts to transfer the force. Thus the engine is more expensive.

The exception to the rule where you can get cheaper and better, eventually, is when a paradigm shifting technology or process comes along. Computers are a prime example, or rather the production of computer chips. Computer used to run on vacuum tubes and punch cards and took and entire room. Then came the discovery of semi-conductor materials, transistors, and the methods to produce them. Now computers can fit on a desk. Now the technology to produce computer chips continues to advance to make smaller and smaller transistors. This allows you to put more and more transistors on a square inch of silicon. This not only allows you to increase the computer speed, but also means you can make lower performance chips using less material thus less money. Thus today the $100 tablet is much more powerful than the room sized computer of the 60’s.

So to get bigger, better, and cheaper you need a paradigm shifting new technology. In space and propulsion, those are harder to come by. We are currently push up against the theoretical limits of jet and rocket engines. There’s just not much more room to improve according to the laws of physics. So there’s not alot of impetus to develop new engines. New jet engines are still being developed not necessary for better performance, but to reduce emission and operating costs. Currently there is some rocket engine development occuring in the US. Aerojet and Orbital ATK are both spending their own money to develop a new liquid rocket engine, though it’s not going to be drastically better than the existing engines. The RS-25, better known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine, is the highest performaning rocket engine ever developed by humans. It is also horrendously complicated and expensive. The new engines are unlikely to try and meet or beat the SSME’s performance. So why is money being spent to develop a new engine that’s not going to better than the best we have? The answer is politics. The new engines are being developed to replace the Russian RD-180 which we currently buy from Russian to power the Delta and Atlas rockets. Given the recent tensions with Russia, Congress has decided giving money for rocket engines is bad. So this is a case of not better, not cheaper, but necessary due to non-technology issues.

In my mind, there are two contenters for paradigm shifting technology in propulsion: nuclear, and addition manufacturing (3D printing). Fusion propulsion has the potential to make interplanetary travel much faster and eventually cheaper. But the technology is still in its early stages and will be very expensive to develop. So fusion propulsion can satisfy the better desire. The cheaper part could be fullfillled by 3D printing. Additive manufacturing can greatly reduce the time and cost to produce components, which will make things cheaper. It also has the potential to make very complex components which may improve performance if designed correctly. Companies have already 3D printed small rocket engines or parts of rocket engines and shown the parts can survive the high temperatures and pressures. Initially 3D printed parts won’t have better performance than their conventional counterparts, and in some cases may have worse performance. But as the technology is further developed, 3D printed engines could also reach the better criteria.

The Trouble with Solutions Manuals

This semester I taught Statics for the first time. The material isn’t very difficult. It’s the same concepts applied to different situations. I assign homework problem from the book as a way for the students to practice the skills and learn the material. However I’m finding that students have easy access to solutions from online resources. I don’t mind if they look at a solutions manual to help them understand how to do something. The homework is not worth many points in their total grade. However it seems the availability of the solutions is making them dependent. Most of the students can do the math and write the equations, however many don’t know where to start a problem without the solutions. They can’t go blind into a problem and solve it, and that’s killing them on exams.

So I think the true issue of solutions manuals is not they give the answers, but they acts like a safety blanket and make the students dependent on the existence of solutions. Perhaps the solutions reduces the anxiety of working the problem, knowing the answers are right there if you want to look. But in real life there are no solutions manuals. In your job no one will be able to tell you the answer. You have to to be able to work the problem and know if the answer is reasonable and looks correct.

So my suggestions for all students is to always do your homework blind first, without the solutions. Then once you’re done, you can go back and check your answers. Don’t jump immediately to the solutions at the first stumbling point. That creates a dependency and doesn’t teach you how to examine and solve the problem.

To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.

There are three main levels of academic degrees you can get in college. The first level is the bachelors degree. The name comes from the 13th century when junior members of guilds or universities were referred to as bachelors. It originated from “knight bachelors”, who were young or poor knights who could not gather their own vassals. The bachelors degree is kind of like the “you must be this tall” sign on roller coaster rides. It’s a basic requirement for most jobs, and it’s often sufficient.

The next level is the Master’s degree. The name originates from a variety of old words (Latin: magister, Old English: maegester, Spanish: maestro, etc) that reflect authority and in academics one who have the authority to teach at a university. The Master’s degrees gives you a little more knowledge in a specific area. Most professionals end up getting a Master’s degree at some point because it usually qualifies them for a pay raise, and often times the company will pay for the tuition.

The last level is the Doctorate of Philosophy or Ph.D. This is the highest academic degree you can obtain. (Note I’m not discussing specialized degrees like JDs or MDs). Interestingly, the Ph.D. as we know it, meaning requiring a research component, was first introduced in Germany in the 19th century. It was very successful and attracted many foreign students, especially from the U.S.

So, the point of this post is to discuss the pros and cons of pursuing that final degree, the Ph.D. When students, usually undegraduates, ask me about graduate school and going for a Ph.D., I always start with a warning. A Ph.D. is a double edged sword. It qualifies you for some specific kind of jobs related to research and development, but disqualifies you for a whole lot of other jobs. If I put this on a number line with all possible jobs from 1-10 with 1 being entry level, then a Bachelors and Master’s would give you access to 1-7 or 8 while a Ph.D. would give you access to 9-10 but deny you access to 1-8. The latter is not because you don’t have the skills for an entry level position, but because you are over-qualified and a company would not be able to pay you a proper salary in an entry level position. Even if you say you’re fine with less pay, the company would worry that you’re secretly unhappy and would quickly find a new position and leave. Getting a Ph.D. is also a long and often times arduous process. The typical Ph.D. takes 5+ years to finish and can take 10 years in some fields. Ph.D. students are also not paid very well. They tend to live just above the poverty line, and in some places they would technically qualify for welfare. So for the degree, you are giving up 5-10 years of a good salary if you had gotten a job with your bachelors or masters degree.

The other downside is a Ph.D.’s job usually doesn’t end at 5 pm. Most Ph.D.’s are hired into R&D or managerial positions where there are many tasks to do themselves or to oversee. The inevitable truth is it takes more than the standard 40 hours a week to get all the work done. So you will be taking work home with you, that’s almost a guarantee. For example, I often put in 10-20 hours a week outside of the office, either working on classes or research.

So what’s the upside of a Ph.D. then? Because there are a lot of downsides. The one single upside is you get to do research and hopefully interesting research. I know that doesn’t seem like much of an upside, but it works for some people. For all the years in school and long hours, your compensation is more work, oddly enough. Some may say this makes us crazy people who work only to do more work. I like to think of it as we find what we do fulfilling enough that the downsides do not seem that important.

Now admittedly I do wish I had more free time to do other things like play games, read for fun, and spend with my family. But I don’t mind reading for work or thinking about research when I’m sitting on the couch. I find it interesting if not exactly enjoyable. So I do not recommend a Ph.D. for most people. A “normal” person has hobbies outside of the job and would rather spend their time at their hobbies. But if you thinking a life of research and scholarship may be right for you, go talk to a Ph.D. I would strongly recommend doing some research at the undergraduate level when the risk is minimal to you. Undergraduate research gives you a chance to see what you would be spending 5+ years doing for the Ph.D., and an inkling into what your career may be like. Now in truth, there is a lot more to a Ph.D.’s job than just research. There’s also a lot of people management, time managements, budget management, and sometimes coming up with ideas for funding. The first three are not specific to a Ph.D. job and can be found in any upper managerial position. The last is less common, and usually difficult to teach. But I’ll leave that for another time.

Images of Our Neighbors

NASA’s space exploration program does some incredible things. Unfortunately it tends to slide below most people’s attention since planets, moons, and stars don’t really impact our daily lives. And humans are nothing if not selfish beings. That’s not necessary a bad thing and is inherent to all life. But I wanted to take this post to show some of the inspiring images of our celestial neighbors that has been captured by NASA’s probes and telescopes. I’m amazed by the fact that we can see these images at all, given these objects are very very far beyond our world. But I am inspired and I hope you will be too.

The Messenger spacecraft was launched in 2004 to study the surface of Mercury from orbit. It finally arrived in 2011 and continued study the planet until its end in 2015. It returned some high resolution images of the small and hot planet.


Venus was photographed in orbit by Magellan and the surface was imaged by the Venera landers (a composite image from Venera 13 is shown).

Venus from Magellan (

Venus surface from Venera 13 (


Mars is the most visited planet in our solar system. Four different countries/space agencies have visited Mars including NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, and most recently the Indian Space Research Organization. Mars’ surface has been imaged and explored by a succession of more complex rovers from Pathfinder to Spirit/Opportunity and now by Curiosity.

Mars surface from pathfinder ( Mars (


Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. It’s a gas giant that is comprised almost completely of hydrogen and helium. It’s “atmosphere” is pretty much the entire planet. Scientists theorize there is a solid surface and core somewhere deep deep in the center of the planet, but have not yet figure out how to check. The pressure inside Jupiter is so high that the hydrogen gas eventually becomes a liquid and then a conductive metallic fluid as you go deeper. The metallic hydrogen is what gives Jupiter it’s large magnetic field.


Jupiter (

Though Jupiter is almost entire gas so you can’t land on it, its many moons are solid and have potential to sustain life. The left image is that of Europa from Galieo show the linae or lines that cross the surface. The lines are attributed to cracks and eruptions in the ice that covers the surface.

Europa from Galileo (


Saturn is the first ringed planet. The only images we have are from telescopes and passing spacecrafts. The one below was captured by Cassini. Cassini is the first and only spacecraft so far to enter into orbit around Saturn and study it and its moons. It carried the Huygens probe which landed on the moon Titan. The second image shows Titan crossing in front of Saturn.

Saturn from Cassini (    Titan crossing Jupiter from Cassini (

Below is an image of Titan from orbit and a composite picture of Titan’s surface built from the data acquired by the Huygens probe during its descent. It looks like something from a movie or video game, but that is the vista of another world.

Titan for Cassini (    Composite image of surface of Titan from Hyugens (


Neptune has only been visited by one spacecrafts, Voyager 2. Like Jupiter, Neptune has a large storm called the Great Dark Spot. Though recently Hubble images show the spot has disappeared, which may indicate it’s a seasonal event unlike the permanent Great Red Spot of Jupiter.


Neptune from Voyager (


The final planet in our solar system is Uranus and it has also only been visited by Voyager 2. Voyager 2 also found 10 new moon bringing the total to 15 moons! They’re all very small though with the largest being 150 km in diameter. Uranus is a strange planet in that its axis is tilted almost 90 degrees. Thus its north pole always points at the Sun and half the planet is always in day and the other half always in night.


Uranus from Hubble (


Most recently, the New Horizons mission reached the demoted planet Pluto and obtained new and beautiful images of the planetoid. The pale region even kind of looks like the Disney character Pluto.



Pluto (


Asteroids and Comets
In addition to planets and moons, we have also sent mission to asteroids and comet. Two recent ones are comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (left) visited by the Rosetta spacecraft, and asteroid Itokawa (right) visited by the Hayabusa mission from Japan.



Asteroid 67P (ESA)    Asteroid Itokawa (


The solar system would not be complete without talking about the center of it all, the Sun. Our Sun has been studied extensively, though we still have much to understand. Below are colored images of the Sun and a close up of a solar flare.

Color image of the Sun (     Solar flare (


There are a tons of pictures of our solar system that has been acquired by telescopes and spacecrafts. They provide scientific data but also a glimpse at our closest neighbors in our little corner of the universe. I encourage you to use your search engine of choice and look through a few pictures of your planet, moon, star, or asteroid of interest. I hope you will be inspired and maybe learn something new.

Psychology of Taking Attendance

This semester, the university asked everyone to take attendance in their classes for the first few weeks. The goal was to encourage students to attend class by making it clear there is an expectation. We all did as requested, but then stopped after the required time as taking attendance to most college professors seems to be a waste of time. Additionally most feel that it’s is not the teacher’s responsiblity to get students to attend class. After all, college students are supposed to be adults, and we should treat them as such. So that means letting them decide if they should go to class or do other things. One of my classes is rather large this semester, and taking attendance was extra difficult and long, so I promptly stopped doing so when possible. As one may expect, the attendance dropped noticably. I would say 10-20% of the class stopped showing up regularly. In comparison, a colleague continued to take attendance in his classes. And even though the students understood there was no credit attached to attendance, he reports his class is better attended than in the past. Perhaps he has created the expectation of attendance as was intended.

This bring up an interesting point of psychology. The question is if there is an expectation of a behavior (going to class) with accountability (taking attendance) but no explicit reward or punishment (no points), will people continue the behavior? In two of my classes I give short quizzes over the homework material as a way to determine if people really know the material themselves. The quiz days are told before hand so the student know when it’s coming. Thus during normal class, I may have 70-80% of the class present, but during quiz days everyone shows up. This implies those students only show up to class in order to take the quiz, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. The professional side of me takes that a bit of an insult since it’s a judgment on their part that they don’t find lecture important enough to attend unless there’s a grade involve. Thus the time I put into prepare and deliver the lecture is not worth their time. I could make attendance a grade which would increase the rate of student presence, but I don’t feel that is appropriate for college students, or rather should not be necessary.

So, how to improve class attendance but without outright taking attendance or making it worth points? In large classes taking attendance is very time consuming. Many schools use some sort of clicker system these days which would make taking attendance quicker, but still doesn’t serve any purpose besides a reminder to show up for class. A better solution may be to do a single quiz question during class using the clicker system. It could be based on material just covered or covered last time. It would help to check for understanding and maybe, just maybe get the students to internalize some information. Making the questions worth 1 or 2 bonus points would be a good way to incentivize attendance, but not punish them for missing class. Research has shown that taking notes during class and studying them after class helps with knowledge retention and learning. Perhaps a clicker quiz at the beginning of class on the previous material would also encourage between class studying.