Posted in 2013

My Master's Thesis Experience

I knew during the fall of my senior year that I wanted a PhD.  I finalized my decisions after I started exploring schools to apply to and working on my personal statement, but I knew then that was what I wanted.  I applied directly to PhD programs.  In the progra I ended up in, when we enter without a Master’s degree we need to fulfill the MS requirements as a s subset of the PhD requirements.  We have two options, we can fulfill the MS credits as 8 courses or 6 courses and a thesis.  I want a PhD because I want to do research, I enjoy research, not because I want to take classes.  I like learning and discovering, of course, but coursework isn’t how I learn best.

I chose to write the thesis.  I also had started to feel like I was at a dead end with my research.  We had tried a lot of things and nothing gave good results.  Nothing even gave hope that a different model would work.  Everything I did said to me that we were asking the wrong type of questions from the data.  I used the MS thesis as an opportunity to write it out and get my advisers on the same page.  I also realized how disorganized I had been about research to that point.  Writing the thesis made completing the MS requirements take longer than I expected.  Two classes I could have taken last spring.  Then I could ahve completed the MS and walked in May, like I planned.  However, I think this experience has made me much more prepared for the remainder of my PhD.

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Teaching to Learn: LaTeX

One thing I really wish I had been exposed to in undergrad that I was unfortunately slow to adopt in graduate school is \(latex LaTeX\).  In my second year, I forced myself to start learning it, during a take home midterm.  I continued learning with some other homeworks and my finals that semester.  During my qualifying exam, I may have learned almost as much \(latex LaTeX\) as signal processing.  I’ve even started using beamer for presentations and using TikZ for drawings.

I was really slow and stubborn to adopt \(latex LaTeX\) though.  I’m a very visual person and getting used to writing without seeing the final formatting was hard.  I still struggle to read and edit my writing for content/ grammar issues in the code view, I end up marking up the pdf somewhere else and then going back to the code.   However, despite this challenge, I ‘ve become a huge proponent of its use, it does so much more than other word processing tools and it’s not really that hard to learn.

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Help: Easier to offer than to ask for

Asking for help is pretty much the hardest thing on earth for me to do. I’m always willing to offer help, but asking for myself is hard.  As I’ve become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I’ve gotten good at playing the connector and asking people to help others when I’m not the best person.  However, when I struggle with something that’s for my own benefit, I always try to just teach myself.  I try to learn the skill on my own, or by taking a class or attending a workshop, but I rarely just ask for help- when I’m the only one to benefit.

I’ve learned through leadership experiences that building a team with different strengths is essential to the success of an organization.   I’ve heard countless times from successful people that they have a group of mentors and advisers that they refer to as a board of directors. As a part of an on going effort to challenge myself, I decided this is the next challenge I want to face, asking for help. It doesn’t make any sense to not use available resources.

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My First Keynote

  • 26 October 2013

Yesterday evening I gave a keynote at the New England Louis Stoke Alliance for Minority Participation (NELSAMP) Poster Symposium hosted at Northeastern.  The event is in conjunction with tomorrow’s GEM Getting Ready for Advanced Degrees (GRAD) Laboratory, tomorrow.  I was asked to speak at the event a couple months ago, I agreed.  For a while I didn’t think much about it then I started planning the talk.   I’ve prepared plenty of presentations before without much of a problem.  However, I’ve always struggled with giving speeches, so I wanted to go a more presentation-like style for talk.  Something about preparing things word for word, I never manage to get through delivering it smoothly.

So I opened a document and started making notes of the points I wanted to make.   I started listing points on slides.  But this was a very different type of talk than I’m used to giving.  I wasn’t simply giving a talk on a predetermined topic, or explaining results. I had to figure out how to be motivational to a group of students. Thinking through what I wanted to say about grad school was a lot harder than I expected.

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Network = Net worth

First, I’m struggling with this effort to post regularly, but I’ll keep trying.

The key in this though is that it’s more than knowing people, it’s about having people in your network.  It’s a two way relationship.  You need to know the people and their expertise well enough to recommend them to other people for help and be able to pass on a request for help.

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The Science Gap

I’ve been involved in a lot of STEM outreach since I began college.  I truly LOVE what I do and sharing that with others is just natural to me.  What I found alarming though was the reasons there’s so much push for STEM outreach.  The bleak outlook for minorities and women going into STEM fields is the predominant one.  In that effort we often cite the digital divide as the problem, a lack of basic computer literacy within our communities.  It’s bigger than that though.

Most of society is far, far removed from what researchers do.  Some even think it’s wasteful, few understand the critical role advanced research plays in developing technology.  Some times we have to solve more basic problems, discover materials, or explain observed phenomena first, before we can build products that safely and reliably accomplish the previously impossible.

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Fall Challenge

I know multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.  Realistically, you can only focus on one task at a time.  However, I do believe that tasks can be constructed so that they contribute to multiple objectives.  You can learn more than one thing out of a single task.

The best way to get better at something is to do it more often.  Writing is hard for me, in fact effective communication in general is.  Ideas float around in my head completely clear, but sharing them?  A very different story.  I know it’s hard for me though, so I prepare, a lot, in advance.  As an engineering undergraduate, I got away without writing much.  In general scientists and engineers aren’t great at communicating, but I think that’s a problem.  At the very least we need to communicate among ourselves to advance our fields.  Especially in research, writing is an essential skill.

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Speed Mentoring

I served as a speed mentor for the Black Engineering Student Society at Northeastern tonight– a component of their retention program where underclassmen got to have four, 5 minute speed mentoring sessions with upperclassmen & alumni.  Giving back always makes me so much more motivated to do my own work!

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Research Engagement

I started academic research in the spring semester of my freshman year of college, now I’m a PhD Candidate, so needless to say research has been a major part of my adult life.  I intend to have a career in research, so it’s important to me.  One thing I noticed as I progressed from undergraduate research to graduate school though was that a lot of students ‘do’ research, but don’t own it.  They carry out assigned tasks and produce results, but the type of enthusiasm, ownership, and creativity that even young professionals demonstrate in commercial environments isn’t present in a lot of research.  Another thing I found was that a lot of people reach the end of undergrad and THEN realize that research experience would help them make a more informed decision about and a stronger applicant to graduate school.

A little over a year ago, I decided to act.  I pulled together some other engineering students and we formed the Student Research Engagement Committee.  I’m currently serving as chair and we work with the Deans office and the Assistant Director for Research Development in the College of Engineering to put on events that address these challenges.

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On Monday I sat on a panel about the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. That’s the funding source I currently have for graduate school. It’s a national fellowship that provides a stipend and cost of education allowance for three years. It’s competitive, like most funding mechanisms, but what makes it different from grants is that the funding is for the PERSON, not the project. At the info session we first had the university’s fellowship coordinator speak on general advice and the support she offers, then a professor who’s served on review panels for the fellowship talk about what it’s like as a reviewer. There’s a lot of resources available to help students put together a competitive application, but I think the most important thing that both speakers and the other panelist and I all repeated, is also the first thing: read and directly address the review criteria and purpose of the funding.

Everything submitted to NSF is reviewed for intellectual merit and broader impacts, and this fellowship specifically exists to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity.”  So as an applicant, you need to show that by funding you, the NSF can accomplish that goal and that your work is both intellectually merited and will have a broad societal impact. Most advice says to specifically address the two criteria with subheadings in the essays to ensure that it’s clear you’ve covered both.  I didn’t do that though; for me, it was more natural to integrate the two throughout.   What’s most important is that you use the limited space you have in the essays to make it clear that your career plans and proposed graduate studies address both.

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Machine Learning Summer School

This post is long overdue, but jetlag after the summer school and a planned end-of-summer trip to visit friends got the best of me when I got home.

The Machine Learning Summer School in Tubigen was a great experience. I highly recommend anyone in machine learning to attend a summer school if possible(there’s at least one every year, 3 planned for 2014) and other graduate students to see if their field runs a similar program.

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Arrived in Tubigen!

I’ve arrived in Tübingen, Germany for the Machine Learning Summer School hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.

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Broadening Participation in Data Mining

I just attended the Broadening Participation in Data Mining workshop co-located with Knowledge Discover in Databases (KDD).  The workshop was designed to provide exposure and professional development workshops to groups underrepresented in datamining and provide the experience of attending one of the top conferences in the field.   The program included two keynote talks, mentoring sessions, in the lab sessions and panels on publishing and career choices.  One keynote was by Natasha Balac from the UCSD Super Computer Center.  She spoke on what data science is and sorting out what it means.  She described the four V’s used to define “big data”: volume, velocity, variety, and veracity.  Big data is a lot of data, in mixed forms, that is generated rapidly and has some uncertainty to it.  I found a good infographic defining it in more detail.    She also described what the supercomputer center does and how she used her PhD in machine learning and artificial intelligence working there and then became the director of the Predictive Analytics Center of Excellence.

The most helpful sessions were the mentoring sessions.   The attendees were PhD students and post docs and the mentors were PhDs working in both industry and academia.  They gave us tips about thesis development, career path, and personal branding.  My favorite piece of advice was from one of the organizers, professor [](” target=“_blank”>Brandies Hill Marshall, that as a prospective faculty member you’re, “COO, company of one.”  They also gave tips for forming a thesis committee, what to include in a job talk and some of the variety of the scope of job talks they were asked to give for various jobs.

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