Learning new things

I’ve been learning many new things recently: Git (alas, this has been on my to-learn list for almost two years), Python, Linux, and parallel computing. The last two are particularly exciting and directly relevant to research. I need to run large scale models now, so I have to learn how to do parallel computing. A few weeks ago I figured out how to do that in R and in MATLAB. But as my quad-core desktop can only speeds up thing a little bit, I need to know how to run experiments on a CPU cluster. Fortunately, my school has three supercomputers that I can use. And because they run on Linux, I need to learn Linux too. My little achievement yesterday that nicely concluded the work week was that I was able to use command line to send a MATLAB script to a cluster, run it there, save the results, and pull the results back to my desktop. This means I’m almost ready to run experiments on Titan with a much larger scale that what I’ve been doing on my desktop.


Some more tips on presenting

I experimented a few things with my Preliminary Exam (PE) talk. I think those ideas worked, so let me do a quick recap.

Begin with a personal story
I started the talk telling why I became a water guy. I wanted to lead the audience to the idea that “The key to the future lies in the past”, and I did that by telling about my past and how that influenced me to change the future. I wanted to tell the audience—my Thesis Committee—why I wanted to pursue this topic.

Title at the end
Most of the talks I’ve seen show the title at the beginning—the conventional way. The exceptions are TED talks which don’t display their titles. Since I wanted to frame the beginning of my talk like a TED talk with a personal story opening, I didn’t have a title. My advisor told me that a PhD thesis must have a title (why didn’t I think of that), so I came up with a solution: put the title at the end. Some movies show their titles at the beginning while some other do so at the end; I reckon a talk can do that too. And I built the content of the talk towards that title. So by the time the title came up, the audience knew why and I hope it stuck with them.

The pause
This was actually unintentional, I didn’t realize that I was doing it until later while reflecting on the experience. I presented the main results of the Ping River streamflow reconstruction paper many times before at EGU. During these one-on-one encounters, when explaining that my model fits better to the data than the benchmark, I often paused and let the listener see it for themselves. While presenting the PE talk yesterday, I just felt like it was EGU all over again, and I did the pause too. I’ve read about “the pause” before but haven’t really practiced it. I guess it came subconsciously. But now that I’ve got real experience with this technique, I think it’s cool and I’m gonna use it more.

Special thanks to my friends J, G and Z for listening to my rehearsals! Always always rehearse your talk. TED talks are all scripted but with countless practices they all sound unscripted. Academic talks are not TED talks, but they need to be well rehearsed too.

Full steam on

I’ve just passed my Preliminary Exam. It’s a preliminary defense of my thesis where I showed what I have done and what I plan to do, and the thesis committee provides their feedback.

I’m at very good place in my PhD right now. After two and a half years into the program, I’ve finished all the coursework requirements (with 8 As and a B), completed my teaching assistantship (and received an Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from my pillar), completed two summer projects (one of which eventually became a paper one and a half years later), attended two conferences (and met amazing people), published one paper in Water Resources Research, reviewed 5 papers, and passed both Qualifying and Preliminary Exams. With all the other requirements done, I am now ready to go full steam on research. Depending on how the results are going to pan out, I have between three and six papers in the pipeline. That’s amazing. That’s so exciting. I can’t finish them all within my PhD of course, but I have enough ideas to keep going for a while even after my PhD.

I think doing a PhD is one of the two best decisions I’ve made in my life (the other one was to propose to my wife).

Keep calm and do research. Full steam on.

First paper submitted

What a day to remember. I committed myself to submitting the paper today, and I completed the task just a few minutes before midnight. My wife is on a business trip. I had to put my son to bed first before I could resume my submission, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his mommy and became too emotional. I had to put him in the carrier and walk him to the reservoir until he could sleep. Then I went back to filling all the required information on the submission page, fixing things here and there along the way. Finally, it’s done.

The adolescent scientist

Imagine our scientific career is mapped to a normal human lifespan. Then, in the first PhD year, we are all babies. We don’t know anything, and we are eager to learn. We receive ample guidance to make baby steps. And we grow up fast. By the end of the second year, which is where I am now, we have become adolescents.

Adolescence is a tricky stage. The adolescent scientist is not a child, neither is he an adult. He has gained certain skills, and there are certain expectations of him. Yet, he is still looked upon as a student. He needs to act confident but not arrogant. He needs to gain independence while yearning for guidance. It is hard to strike a balance.

The difficulties not only stem from the outside, but also from within the adolescent scientist himself. The more he learns, the more he needs to learn. With that comes self-doubt: am I good enough? Will I ever be? While asking where he is now, the adolescent scientist needs to think about where he is going. More questions. Part of growing up.

Growing up is the journey where one discovers his identity; it is a process of self-awareness and self-adjustment, baffling and tedious. Learning is a journey where one discovers his passion; it is a process of searching for a question and working for an answer, perplexing and laborious. But with every discovery comes enormous joy; it pushes him forward, ready to ask another question. In a sense, he embraces his adolescence. This stage is, without a doubt, a crucial and memorable part of his scientific career.

Misconstrued actions

I have to begin my writing challenge with a rather sad story—one about a moment of social awkwardness I encountered today.

There was a series of presentations today by several PhD students. Before it started, I was asked by the programme coordinator to be the timekeeper for the talks. When it was about to start, the department head was absent, and one faculty member, I’ll call him A, agreed to be the chair. As the first talk went over its time limit and took up most of its Q&A time, A said that the speaker had a couple of minutes left. As I was keeping the time, I said that there was 5 minutes left for both presentation and Q&A. More than a minute later, when the presentation ended, I said there were three and a half minutes left, so we could have two questions. Faculty member B, sitting next to A, said “Now he wants to be the chair”, and A said something similar. I clarified that “I am the timekeeper.” When the first talk is over, A thanked the speaker. Another faculty member, C, said “Why are you thanking him, he [pointed towards me] should be thanking him.” The audience laughed.

Now, in retrospect, I think A was not very happy when I first clarified the time, and I think neither A, B nor C knew that I was the timekeeper. They thought I went over the line. Having had some time for recollection, I think I did. But that was not my intention. I was just clarifying things. I overdid it (I am always serious about what I do). My actions annoyed these people, and the actions were misconstrued as “trying to be the chair”, which was never my intention.

A commitment to writing

I set up this blog as a place to practice writing. Ironically, as I’m now writing my first paper, I have been neglecting this blog for a while. I thought I was already writing, so there was no need to practice writing. I now realize that such reasoning is flawed. Writing a paper is like running a marathon, it is a long and enduring process. When we train for a marathon, we don’t just run long distances. That is the core of the training, but we need to do more. We need to do interval training to beef up the cardio, we need to train different muscles to strengthen them individually, and so on. Similarly, practicing academic writing doesn’t mean just writing papers. I need to do a variety of other writings to flex up the writing muscles. That I am already writing my paper should not be an excuse to stop practicing.

Yesterday, I read about a business consultant who maintained a strict habit of writing every day. The result was that despite his busy schedules, he managed to publish two books. What’s more, the core content of the books came from his daily writings. I was inspired.

So, at this very moment, on a long bus ride home in a rainy evening, I commit myself to writing something every day. It could be this blog, my baby’s blog, my research journal or event in my little notebook if I don’t have any access to a computer. For now, I will keep this writing time flexible while trying to find a good routine. I’ve frequently heard and read that it is best to fix a time slot for writing, but it’s just not possible right now, and I don’t want to overwork myself.

In the spirit of deliberate practice, I will focus on one aspect of writing in each practice piece. The focus can be on conciseness, fluidity, story structure, etc. as I recently learned or am learning at the moment of writing.

This commitment is for a very long term. But as a baby-step start, let me challenge myself to do it for one whole week.

And the challenge starts now.