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Recap: Term 7

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Recap: Term 7

Olivia Wilkins

Another term down, and another year of grad school complete (minus summer). I'm about 30% of the way through grad school (assuming I'll complete my PhD in the average 5.7 years, or 23 terms, for Caltech chemists)! What have I been up to? Well...

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... I PASSED MY Ph.D. CANDIDACY EXAM!!!

The Ph.D. Candidacy Exam is an exam taken somewhere between the end of the first year of grad school and finishing your Ph.D. thesis. For chemistry students at Caltech, the exam is supposed to be complete by the end of March in the second year, but proposals, teaching, and just life in general prevented this from happening for me. Instead, my exam was June 15, and I passed! Just a couple of revisions and I never have to stress out about my candidacy exam again.

So what does the candidacy exam entail, anyway? This varies for different academic options, but generally there is some kind of oral exam and a written component. In chemistry at Caltech, there are three pieces of writing: two 15-page, double-spaced research propositions (one in-field and one out-of-field) and a 30-page, double-spaced research report. The oral exam, which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, seems to have no rules and is different for every grad student in chemistry. The one constant is that your three committee members grill you on your research ideas and provide (hopefully constructive) feedback.

Needless to say, preparing for the exam is a lot of work, hence why I wasn't very active on here for the past several months.

My GBT telescope proposal was accepted! The proposal I wrote back in February was accepted grade A (highest priority) with a score of 0.5 (on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is a high score and 10 is low). This means I get to spend lots of time in Green Bank with my favorite telescope in the world! Stay tuned for those observations!

I wrote not one but two more ALMA proposals for Cycle 6. I think I'm done writing proposals for a bit... this is still my mood:

I co-taught Chemistry throughout the Universe (Ch 101), a revamped version of the astrochemistry tutorial I taught with my friend Cam last year. Each week, we talked about chemistry in a new astronomical environment and facilitated discussions about how chemistry in one environment could inform our understanding of other environments. The course also involved a proposal writing assignment in which students practice their proposal writing and presentation skills. They had to provide background information on their chosen topic, pitch a research problem they aimed to tackle, and justify why solving a particular problem was useful in astrochemistry and our broader understanding of the universe. It was a lot of fun to hear our students' astrochemistry-related research ideas. Some of the feedback we received suggested that we weren't harsh enough in our critiquing; several students said they thought we would "rip [their] papers apart" (but for the most part, the proposals were pretty strong to begin with and didn't need to be totally ripped apart... *shrug*).

I attended the 2018 NRAO Synthesis Imaging Workshop in Socorro, NM. I learned about some of the technical details of radio astronomy and interferometers (radio telescope arrays like the VLA and ALMA) and also got some time to practice imaging with data in tutorials with help from NRAO scientists. I took lots of sketchnotes, some of which I posted on Twitter.

The workshop lasted one week, but the family and I took another week (a few days on either side) to road trip and visit National Park sites. We visited Tonto National Monument, White Sands National Monument, Tumacácore National Historical Park, Casa Grande Ruins, and Saguaro National Park.

It was a full two weeks.

I finally got my ALMA Cycle 5 data! I can do science now! It only took me a week to download the data (ha ha only....). I ran into some trouble because the files were 100+ GB total and you can only store 20 GB on the GPS server. The only way I could figure out how to get the data onto the "nobackup" drives, which have more storage space, was to download the data to my home desktop, unzip the files there (I had trouble on the GPS server... it kept timing out because of how big th files were), then copy the files over to the "nobackup" drive. A couple of hours for each task plus several instances of timing out resulted in this taking several days to complete.

I was expecting to get the data back in mid-February, but it wasn't ready until the end of April. I mentioned this to one of the NRAO people at the Synthesis Imaging Workshop, and they made a joke about how they have nightmares about certain project codes. I laughed and asked if my project code was one of them. Their face froze. They had nightmares about my project's data. Between that and it taking me a week to download the data, I have such high hopes for this project to be fun (*sarcasm*).

I was interviewed for a book review about sketch notes. Huub Eggen quoted me extensively for his review of Pencil Me In for SciCom NL.

I shared my experiences of illustrating summaries of academic journal articles I read to help me reflect upon and retain the information therein better.

I had a full term, and while I accomplished a lot (passing candidacy, submitting two more ALMA proposals, attending the Synthesis Imaging Workshop, co-teaching a course, and somehow still managing to have decent work-life balance, including lots of fun with the family), it feels like I made little progress towards my Ph.D. Hopefully I'll get to dive into my data this summer before I embark on a whirlwind of travel in the fall. Only time will tell. Here's to a productive, and hopefully fairly slow, summer!