Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

You don’t have to be a grad student to wind up spending the holidays away from your family and friends.  I’ve been fortunate enough to spend Christmas with my family despite living more than a thousand miles away.  But this year, my brother will not be able to join us…at least not physically.

If you haven’t noticed already, I like Piled Higher and Deeper.

“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?” – Bob Hope

May you have enough.

Gluten-Free Dining

First, allow me to state that I am neither gluten-intolerant nor celiac.  I do, however, have several family members who have been gluten-intolerant/celiac for a number of years.  Family get-togethers often involve switching to a celiac-friendly diet for the duration of the visit.  Plus, since celiac, or as I like to call “gluten-intolerance set on high,” runs strongly in families, it’s better that I don’t eat much of the stuff and will often go for days without gluten.  I don’t even know how to work with gluten anymore, only the gluten-free stuff.  The good gluten-free stuff tastes waaay better than the regular stuff anyway.  For example, I prefer Tinkyada brown rice pasta over regular pasta.  It doesn’t get mushy.  Period.  In other words, I may not be gluten-intolerant, but I know how to live like a celiac.

So, what’s the dining scene for celiacs?  You’ve probably know by now that Bloomington has an extensive list of options.  Well, while gluten-free options are not as advertised as vegetarian options, Bloomington has a lot to offer.  My sister, a celiac, says that she has an easier time eating out here than in East Lansing, MI.  I’ll go through a small selection of places that aren’t national chains in increasing order of difficulty.

Very easy:

Darn Good Soup:

Outside of Darn Good Soup. Photo taken by Lori.

It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s darn good, and all made from scratch.  If you cook much, you know that soup can easily be made without flour as long as it’s made from scratch.  Darn Good Soup changes its menu regularly, so it’s best to walk up to a worker and ask what’s gluten-free for the day.  The worker will point out anywhere between 5 to half the soups listed.  The hard part is picking a soup.

Bloomingfoods Market and Deli:

If your looking for a snack to pick up, Bloomingfoods is a good place to go.  All gluten-free items and snacks are labelled on the shelf.  The deli portion often keeps gluten-free cookies and muffins available, too.  Bloomingfoods must have dedicated cooking materials somewhere because I have not run into any cross-contamination issues with the cookies.

Gluten-Free shelf at Bloomingfoods. Photo taken by Lori



Mandalay restaurant. Photo taken by Lori

4th street is a street full of restaurants, many of them ethnic, not psuedo-ethnic.  As long as the place isn’t a buffet, gluten-free options abound.  Mandalay is a good example.  The restaurant specializes in Burmese cuisine and only uses fish sauce for the fish dishes, not soy sauce.  So, anything with fish and no wheat noodles is gluten-free.


Ami is located on 3rd street and, last I recall, kept gluten-free soy sauce available.  The workers may be a bit wary when hearing about the dietary restrictions, but they can do gluten-free.  If you’ve been to Japanese restaurants before, this is neither a surprise nor a reason for alarm.  Just remember to say, “no barley,” as well when ordering.

The Owlery:

Talking to vegetarians about gluten-intolerance is often a two-fold scenario.  On one hand, vegetarians are more likely to know what gluten is and are aware of how dietary restrictions work.  One the other hand, vegetarianism often replaces meat with more grains, especially wheat, the exact opposite of what living with gluten-intolerance requires.  So, vegetarian places understand, but may have trouble accommodating.  The Owlery, however, tries to accommodate both at the same time.  The vegetarian restaurant keeps a separate gluten-free menu and ships in breads from a gluten-free bakery in Florida.  I haven’t been able to test this place out on any celiacs yet, but it looks like a good possibility.

The Owlery is a newer restaurant in town. Look for the small building on the square. Photo taken by Lori

Le Petit Cafe pick-up window:

During the Farmer’s Market, Le Petit Cafe opens a pick-up window along a path to the Farmer’s Market.  The pick-up window offers small items for a couple dollars.  It’s a good place to pick up breakfast after going to the market.  Anyway, this past year the cafe began offering gluten-free quiche.  I haven’t come across any contamination issues here, just yummy quiche.

“Gluten-free,” but not recommended for celiac:

Chelsea’s bakery:

Chelsea’s specializes in making a variety of organic baked goods.  This bakery makes some good gluten-free items … next to some items with gluten.  So, while the bakery has options for those with gluten-intolerance, I would not recommend this place to celiacs who cannot have any cross-contamination whatsoever.

4th St buffets:

As stated before, 4th street has numerous ethnic restaurants, but some are buffets.  A situation begging for cross-contamination.  If you arrive at a buffet just as it opens and before anyone else arrives, you can collect your lunch before anyone else has a chance to mess up the buffet.  My sister and I did that with an Indian buffet on 4th St.  She can test for gluten at a distance (I have no idea how she does it) and collect the gluten-free curries before the naan gets spread around.  I would not recommend this for anyone new to the whole no-gluten thing or celiacs in general.

Adding an Individual Touch to Your Application

Wow.  A lot has already been put up this month about CVs, resumes, and application packages.   To reduce the chance of redundancy, I’ll add a couple final tips about writing up one’s application, mainly, finding a contact at prospective schools.

This tip is probably more important for master’s students looking to move on to a PhD program elsewhere, but getting in contact with potential schools is always a good idea.  Websites give limited information about a program; so by contacting a professor, you can get better information about what kind of research is available, opportunities, funding, etc. before you submit the application.  Even if the professor you contacted doesn’t have the research you’re looking for, that person can direct you to a better contact.

In this day and age where we can meet anyone online, it can still be scary to contact a professor you’ve never met or contact a professor at all.  Just remember this: most of the time, professors love to go on and on about their research.  A prospective student asking about research?  Really?  😀  I’ve had trouble getting a professor to take a breath so I can ask a question.  You’re not burdening the professor by contacting him/her.  If the professor doesn’t reply, don’t take it personally.  Chances are, the professor is in the midst of writing a proposal, can’t think about anything else, and your email got buried.  I’m speaking from personal experience here.  If this happens, try another professor in the department.

Other than finding out more about a prospective program, finding a contact can also help with application process.  A few emails with a professor shows that you are an interested candidate.  The contact can also give you pointers on how to better tailor you application. Professors want good students and they don’t want the application to be a barrier to getting good students.

If you’re still nervous about contacting a professor at IU, the emissaries are here to help.  It’s part of our job description to act as initial contacts for prospective students.  While we may not be students in the field you’re looking for, we can help you find that contact professor.

Well, good luck and happy submitting!

IU Open House

Open House. photo courtesy Julianne Martin, STM Living Learning Center

Every fall, the Astronomy, Chemistry, and Physics departments hold an annual Open House event.  This is when a department opens its doors to the general public and showcases the field.  This includes child-friendly activity rooms, shows, and lectures for the older audience.  For the past few years, the departments held their respective open house’s at the same time and this year, the Math department joined with its own activity room.

The Holographic Toy; Where is the real toy? photo courtesy of Prof. Liese vanZee, Astronomy

On the last Saturday of October, about 900 visitors arrived on campus from the very young to ageing (high school students get extra credit for showing up).  I took the morning shift in the Light and Color room to tell visitors about light diffraction with various elements.  The kids love wearing the diffraction glasses since the glasses let the kids see rainbows everywhere, particularly near lights, which was the point.

Astronomy student showing a visitor the finer points of making a comet. photo courtesy of Prof. Liese vanZee, Astronomy

After the morning shift, I took a one hour shift at the Women in Physics/Astronomy table.  Several new features were added this year, including a pumpkin drop and new lectures.  The WIP table had been dropped over the past couple years, but was resurrected this year.  The table was manned partially by students from the new women’s STM Living Learning Center.

Women in Physics/Astronomy Table. photo courtesy of Julianne Martin, STM Living Learning Center.

There are several shows put on by the departments.  The most popular of these are the two themed shows put on by the undergraduate students in physics and chemistry, respectively.  The shows always involve liquid nitrogen(physics), blowing something up(chemistry), and leaving a bizarre mess(both).

I could go on, but that would make this post impossibly long.  Let me just finish by saying that I had a great time at the open house and that the open house is one of those things best seen in person.  I’ll leave you with a video from the open house done two years ago.

Physics/Astronomy Open House 2010

Personal Statements

Personal statement, statement of intent, cover letter.  Whatever one calls it, this one-page summary often leads an applicant scratching his/her head.  What do I write?  How do I write it?  And most importantly, how does a statement of purpose vary when applied to a graduate application?

So, to the first question:  What do I write?

Instead ask, what do I want the admissions to know that is not covered by the CV?  That is the real point of the statement of purpose.  This can include details about previous research experience and future academic interests and why it’s good for the department to choose you.  Be specific, but having a thesis topic is not necessary at this stage.

Next question:  How do I write it?

This depends more on each subject and requires more research on the applicant’s part.  The hard sciences tend to want letters that are object specific and to-the-point (“…my involvement with *insert project* gave me experience in *insert subject* due to *insert factor*…”).  I cannot say much else for other fields, but fluff should be avoided for a letter limited to one-page.  Also, try to make each statement appear unique for each prospective school.  Admissions can tell if a letter is a recycled generic letter and may not take said letter as seriously as a letter written specifically for their program.

Third question:  How is a graduate statement of purpose different from other statements?

Often, internet searches will give pointers on writing the statement but the information may not apply to graduate applications.  Sifting away all the pointers that are not specifically for grad applications can help contend with the confusing and conflicting information out there.  I found this site particularly helpful when I wrote mine:

Papyrus News

The main difference is that a personal statement for grad school is that grad school is more concerned about content than glamor.  This may be reminiscent of Dragnet’s “Just the facts, Ma’am.”  Admissions pays attention to the letter of intent because it’s the applicant’s chance to speak with the admissions.  The readers are interested in the content that the writer took the time to specify.

Now after all this, another question pops up as an afterthought:  When am I done?

Be wary.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Don’t let this happen to you.

I cannot tell you how many drafts to write, but some signs help determine when a draft is finished or at least close enough.  Let your advisor, your peers, other researchers, or just someone you know with good grammar look through it and mark it up.  Personally, I do not consider someone to have properly reviewed my early drafts unless the reviewer makes the paper ‘bleed’ with ink marks.  Take the changes with discretion and have the paper reviewed again.  I do this until suggestions from reviewers begin to conflict.  At this point, the suggestions are due to stylistic differences, rather than clarity or content.  Finally, read the letter out loud.  It’s amazing what little details one can find by reading out loud.


Escape from a Windowless Office

So if you’re like me, you spend most of your research time in a windowless office with little interaction with the outside world.  Also, if you’re like me, you want a chance to escape said windowless office after so many hours of not seeing the sun.  But how to do that?  Grad school has seasons of intense work that needs to be done right now and then a relief.  What can one do that doesn’t require a lot of commitment or is at least understanding about the grad school position?

A glimpse at my corner of the windowless office. When it becomes a blur, it’s time for a break.
Photo taken by Lori

Thankfully, IU has some options: The GPSO here at IU hosts monthly social hours that take place Friday night at a restaurant or bar.  The social hours include no cover charge and free food!  Beer’s on the student though.  Groups such as churches often host events such as social hours for grad students and recent grads.  Departments hold a yearly picnics.  At IU, clubs often have a large number of grad students.  Such as salsa.  So if you disappear for half a semester and then come back, you still have someone to relate to.


Conferences in One’s Minor

What often comes to mind when the topic of conferences come up?  Preparing an abstract/paper/poster to present in one’s major and figuring out how to pay for the trip are two common item.  Well, when I was in undergrad, I did something a little different:  I attended several conferences in my minor, Computer Science.

In my last year of undergrad, I became part of an all-female CS research group funded by a CREU (Computing Research Experience for Undergraduates) grant.  Looong story how I got involved.  The grant required that members of the group present their research at least two computing conferences.  I wound up going to three.  Let’s focus on the last one, Grace Hopper’s Women in Computing.

At this point in time, everyone in the research group had graduated.  Robyn was in the midst of job training, Jaelle had begun her position as tech liaison, and I started grad school two months prior.  Robyn was unable to go, but Jaelle and I were able to meet up again in Atlanta, Georgia.  And guess what?  We both encountered women in physics or involved in physics-related projects at this computing conference.  Computing and physics often go hand-in-hand and that was understood here.  Unlike the undergraduate career fair in SD, which catered to engineers only and didn’t know what to do with a physics student, the recruiters here looked at physics students with a serious interest.

So go ahead.  Go to a conference in your minor.  You’ll never know what you’ll find.

Neutrinos and Mt. Rushmore

Summer in Bloomington is often calm and spent focusing on research.  With a conference coming up in the fall, there was an extra drive to complete some analysis on my research group’s detector.  I also had my qualifying exam coming up in August, which unfortunately interfered with research.  I found I prefer research over studying, but that’s why I’m in grad school.

In the midst of these two deadlines, I did go visit my family in South Dakota over the 4th of July and consequently Mt. Rushmore and Sanford Lab.

Notes on visiting Mt. Rushmore on Independence Day:  Do not go in the afternoon.  Not unless you like sitting behind a long line of RVs and motorcycles winding around a narrow mountain road.  Instead, do as the locals and go early.  The crowds are still large, but passable.  Oh, and don’t miss the actor-presidents hanging around the grounds giving out autographs.

While there, I also visited the developing Sanford Lab in Lead, SD.  The lab was originally the Homestake gold mine and still often referred by that name.  Every year the lab hosts a Neutrino Day, similar to IU’s Physics and Astronomy Open House event, but smaller and placed on a mountaintop.  My undergraduate institution (being a “School of Mines”) has many ties to Homestake, from training the mining engineers in the past to collaborating with the new underground lab today.  This connection is where I started in experimental nuclear physics and holds a sense of nostalgia.