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.