Friday, April 21, 2017

A Cosmobiologist's PhD Defense


I'm now finishing out 6 years of graduate studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Yikes! Where did all of that time go?

Those who know me also certainly know that this past year has been exceptionally rough. Long hours of typing, physical and mental self-abuse, and a slowly degrading attitude toward everything is what comes out of writing a PhD dissertation. Well, that and the fact that you then get to defend that work against a group of research scientists. After writing over 77,372 words in 299 double-spaced pages with abundant figures and tables, all the while using cigarettes, coffee, and booze to fuel the ever longer days of writing (for most of 2017 I was working 60-100 hours a week on the writing), I then had to parse it all down into one coherent talk for my public defense (which comes before the actual defending occurs).

In the week leading up to the talk, I was having some hard times. I was aiming for a 40-45 minute talk, but also knew that I had to have enough data to get the main points across while also making it accessible to a general scientifically-literate audience (something I find to be extremely important). In my many practices, I either hit the right time but with not enough information, or I had lots of info and ran way over on time. Luckily, I was able to give a practice talk to a group of friends and they helped me hone down some key ideas and to figure out how to focus the talk more on my main contributions. Still, the night before my defense I did a run through of my talk and it hit 90 minutes. I was crushed. I was terrified. I was mortified. 

I tried to sleep that night and it just wasn't happening. I think I may have gotten a total of 45-60 minutes of sleep the night before my PhD defense. When the morning finally came around, I did one more practice run with my wife, and this time it hit 45 minutes and felt like just the right level of info for the general audience and for my committee (at least, according to me). I managed to walk away from it and have a breakfast out with Amanda. I then did a 30 minute meditation in the tub, using a guided meditation from The Honest Guys on Youtube (I definitely recommend this one. It's called The Sanctuary). I managed to get myself shined up all nice like and head in for my PhD defense. 

I'm so thankful for the huge turnout of people who came to the live talk. It was great to speak in front of a room full of such awesome people! Also, I was super lucky in that my friend Mike of the Don't Panic Adventure Club duo was able to attend and made a pretty snazzy recording of my talk so that I could share it here with you, on A Cosmobiologist's Dream. Check out the video below (or click here to go to the NASA Astrobiology Youtube page and watch it there):



If you watched the talk, I hope you stuck around until the end to see a picture of my husky, Darwin. He's a hipster, but he's one cool cat (or dog, or, whatever). 


Of course, after that talk came the actual PhD defense. The part where everyone else is kicked out of the room and it's just the lowly graduate student and their panel of research scientists (the committee) who will judge their work. I think I'll save the take-home points on my actual defense of my work and the comments from my committee until I finish the revisions of my dissertation (it may actually end up a little shorter by the end!). At that point, I'll post a link to the dissertation itself and give an overview of everything.

Well, after the night-of-no-sleep and all of the fear and then the talk and the defense that followed, I was finally through the defense side of the PhD process. Although I successfully defended, there are a lot of revisions to do yet. However, maybe now I can cut back to more sensible hours (especially since a graduate student's pay has nothing to do with the amount of work they do). Also, in finishing up the defense, it was incredibly awesome to celebrate over whisky and champaign with so many awesome people. We later went out to The West End Tavern, one of my favorite places in Boulder for having a good whisky. I had several scotches and bourbons, including a 25 yr. Laphroaig and a 23 yr. Pappy Van Winkle (both remarkably awesome glasses of booze!). My friends, being the incredible folks that they are, covered the costs of the spirits, of which I'm pretty sure I drank over 400 years of aging that night.

Now that I'm through the defense, I'm excited for working on the revisions and hopefully publishing at least one more paper from my work (though I think there could be two or three there as well). After all that I put myself through this past year, I kind of feel like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, after crawling through all of that mess of shit and grossness and finally feeling the beauty of the world as I find some freedom. It feels like I'm now able to discover myself again as I finish out this research and prepare for what comes next. As George Fairman's song goes, "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way!"

Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Monday, April 17, 2017

"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus

Given the issues concerning immigration, emigration, human rights, and "otherness" that have come to the forefront in American news lately, this poem has been coming back to my mind a lot. It's one I think all Americans should learn and consider, even if they disagree with the implications. The Statute of Liberty, initially conceived to honor freedom and democracy following the Union victory of the Civil War, has this poem engraved on a bronze plaque within the lower level of the pedestal. The poem, the source of the famous line "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...", was written by a young woman who was an advocate for refugees, specifically Russian Jews seeking refuge in America. The issue of acceptance of modern-day refugees and immigrants is complex and many of us find ourselves falling somewhere in the middle of a large spectrum of opinions, the extremes of which may be indifference on one side and utter hatred on the other. Wherever you find yourself in the large mix of ideas about refugees and immigrants, consider what a monument like the Statue of Liberty and ideals like those upon which the United States of America was built can mean to people fleeing from tyranny and from suffering. Is there still a Golden Door to this nation, or is that solely a dream of past generations? As you consider such ideas, remember this poem, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus:


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 


The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Cosmobiologist, Ph.D.


Well, I've successfully defended my Ph.D.! It's a strange feeling, but a good one. I've wondered a lot in this past year if it was worth all of the long hours for little pay with lots of self-doubt, depression, and physical and mental degradation. Honestly, I don't know yet if it was worth it. I figure it will take a few years before I can look back and say, oneway or the other, if I feel like this was a good idea in the end. However, it is pretty awesome to achieve something I've thought about for my entire life. Now I need to start working on figuring out what the next steps will be (while also finishing up some rather large-scale revisions to my dissertation). However, now that I'll have some more free time, I can get back to sharing more of my life here with you, on A Cosmobiologist's Dream!



Monday, March 6, 2017

A few quotes about stars to brighten your day

And to enliven your night! 

Credit: Christophe Lehenaff

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” 

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos



“A philosopher once asked, "Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?" Pointless, really..."Do the stars gaze back?" Now, that's a question.” 

― Neil Gaiman, Stardust


"There is no easy way from the earth to the stars” 

― Seneca



“There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.” 

― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos


“It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.” 

― Mark Twain


“Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.” 

― Ptolemy

"There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.” 

― H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau



“The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space.” 

― George Gordon Byron



Saturday, March 4, 2017

Groove like the sci-fi nerd you are with these sci-fi and ambient sound videos

Gates to Elysium, by Christian Hecker
Getting lost in layers of thought about what else there may be is one of the fun parts of science fiction!

As I've been getting my Ph.D. dissertation closer and closer to being finished, I've been slowly meandering through watching sci-fi (like Star Trek Voyager), listening to music (like metal instrumental and electronic groove music), and finding ambient sounds to groove with in the background while I write. I recently shared a post with a video that had 10 hours of ambient noise mixed with the sounds of an Arctic icebreaker. I've played that video as background a few times now while writing and it's been awesome, but now I've found something else that is definitely pretty groovy.

The Youtube channel for crysknife007, who also goes by Cheesy Nirvosa at Bandcamp, is full of ambient music tracks that are awesome for background noise. But, what's even better, he's put together a whole bunch of tracks that feature ambient sounds from science fiction television shows and movies! Like this one, which features 24 hours (yup, one full day) of the ambient sounds of the starship Enterprise-D from The Next Generation: 



Or, this one, with 12 hours of the engine sounds of the starship Serenity from Firefly:




These ambient sound videos are great for background noise for focusing on work or even for just relaxing. Also, I've found that playing some of these along with some soft background music is really helpful in getting my mind into the writing zone. 

Let's say that living on a spaceship isn't exactly your thing, well why not then enjoy the sounds of a police call booth that's both a spaceship and timeship and a living being, with this video of ambient sounds from the TARDIS from Dr. Who:



It's definitely worth taking a look at the stuff over on crysknife007's page. He's got a bundle of tracks with background ambient sounds from various sci-fi shows and movies, but also a lot more. For instance, he's got some tracks featuring the sonified data from the EM fields collected by our spacecraft around Europa as well as from the Voyager spacecraft. Here's one more that's pretty freaking cool:



If you're a sci-fi nerd like me then you're probably already digging it, but just for a little more enticement, check out crysknife007's biography of himself from Bandcamp:



Crysknife007 specializes in extended ambient space and spaceship sounds. He also enjoys working with other scifi soundscapes.

Also known as Cheesy Nirvosa, his homefried beats break from traditional cycles and regularity. The sound aims more for confusion than melody, often favoring some that sounds particularly out of place than a tune which syncopates expectedly. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Some Chemical Properties of Sulfur, a Learning Video from FuseSchool

Sulfur is one the coolest chemical elements. It's crucial for life as we know it, has more solid allotropes than any other element, produces a lot of the scents that we recognize with our sense of smell, was one of the few elements in pure form that was known by ancient people (it's even mentioned in The Odyssey), it's yellow in its natural form but melts into a beautiful red and burns blue, and it's become part of the highlight of my graduate research (okay, that last bit probably only makes it super important to me). 

I recently discovered two rare allotropes of the mineral form of elemental sulfur (also, technically called polymorphs) at Borup Fiord Pass, a glacier system in the High Arctic. One of those allotropes, known as beta-cyclooctasulfur (ya, cool name), usually only forms in warm environments and wasn't expected to be found on an Arctic glacier. 

I'm working on some videos to share information about my work with sulfur and Borup Fiord Pass. However, in the meantime, here's a fun video from FuseSchool that explains some of the awesome chemical properties of sulfur. Check it out: