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.

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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.

Rehearsal
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.

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.

A quick summary of term 4

Another term has ended. It was a tough one. I started well, but lost momentum due to a week of going back home for Tết. And took time to gain back momentum after that, because I had to play catch with the content. And then I had to put my research on hold to to a side project. The good thing was that this project turned out to be interesting and I learned quite a fair bit. On top of school and research,  I’m also participating in the EVA Challenge, predicting rainfall extreme. And then the exam came. In previous terms, I had always felt that I’ve learned the material well and was not worried at all at the exam. But not this time. Anyways, the exams were okay. The term ended with a fun pizza-and-salad lunch with other PhD students. We ended up talking a lot. It was great to catch up.

And now, it’s time for the Quals, after which it’ll be full-time research. But during the next 3 weeks of Quals prepration, I’m still gonna keep up with my grand tradition of doing research every Friday—it’s my version of the 20-mile rule.

 

2016 is over, and I’m a 30-year-old second-year PhD student with a 1-year-old baby

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one day early with some wonderful grilled lamb ribs, air flown from Australia by my brother-in-law, and cooked to perfection by my lovely wife. We also had our favourite tiramisu, also made by her. I spent the last 3 weeks at home, recovering from a tough term, looking after my son, and doing things around the house. We also enjoyed a staycation, the itinerary of which revolves around the baby, of course. Last 3 weeks was such a good break from study that I actually started to miss school last couple of days. Tomorrow, on my thirtieth birthday, I’m going back to school, ready for a new year.

Being a January baby has its advantage: I can do the year-end reflection and the new-age reflection at the same time. 2016 to me was a very special year: it’s the first year being a dad, it’s the first year of my PhD, and it’s my thirtieth year of life. Well, the last one is just a numerical significance, but the first two are really important milestones.

I reflected on my first PhD year in the previous post. I have two important updates today. The first one is that I bagged another two As last term, which means I’ve got five As in a row. I have never been this good in my entire life (always a good-but-not-so-brilliant student in my undergraduate and masters). It turned out that I did well enough in the Optimization & Control class that the final did not affect it too much (and the final was tough for everyone anyways). Grades aside, the most important aspect of last term was that I received a lot of positive feedback for my teaching assistantship. The students said I was helpful, responsible, knowledgeable, dedicated, enthusiastic, passionate, among other things. One student said I was the best TA he’d seen. Another student said he thought I would be a good lecturer (well, he just struck my sweet spot). And it seems that apart from the things a TA should do, my most important contribution to them is my industry experience, which I shared a lot in and out of class. Not bad at all for a first timer.

I’m certainly proud of my first year as a PhD student, but I’m even more proud of my first year being a dad. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. All the diaper changing, putting the baby to sleep, carrying him everywhere in the carrier, and playing with him were all quite an experience. But I think my unique dad thing was that I made a lot of toys and things for him. Let’s start with the handy-man stuff, and then I’ll showcase the toys.

Before he was born, I painted his entire room.

36_weeks_painted_room

I made a mirror and stand for him to stand up

Mirror

In his room, I installed a shelf to keep all the non-baby-friendly stuff off limit, and it even comes with a set of lights that warm up the entire room before bedtime:

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He started to crawl all over the house and opened cabinet doors, so I had to baby-proof them. But I still want to let him play his opening-closing game. I put 7 pieces of wood together (from old kitchen door and shelves) to make a cabinet for him. It also acts as a garage for his cars (aka walkers)

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Now let’s talk about the toys. Here’s a little lesson about gravity

There’s a hole on the wall left behind by a removed picture frame, so I made a pinwheel for him to play with.

The popular IKEA’s Poang armchair helped my wife to rest during her pregnancy, but it fell out of use after the baby was born. The chair was dismantled and kept in the storeroom, but I had an idea for the frame. I turned it on its side, covered it with cardboard, gave it a flap, and we have a tunnel. It used to sit inside little one’s playpen as a house (and the fence becomes the garden), but now we just keep it at a corner, and take it out when some action is needed

The most enjoyable toys is made from the simplest things. I just took a carton box, cut out two doors, and wallah, we have a tunnel, a house and a place to play peek-a-boo

Of course, these are only the cool and successful ones. There are a lot of misses, and there are some that are not so cool. Making toys is a trial and error process—you’ll never know if he’ll like it. But the process of making is quite enjoyable too. And I already have some ideas in the pipeline for him.

As a parenting team, we’ve done a lot this year. But there are also things we had to keep aside. Our cooking adventure was reduced to special-occasions-only, and of course my food photography was completely halted (all my photography activity last year was to take pictures of the little one). My wife’s guzheng was left almost untouched (and ended up in the storeroom for most of the year). My drum set was my son’s toy, and my guitar was used mainly to play children’s songs for him. The number of movies we went to in the entire year can be counted with one hand (in fact, I just spent like an hour of my last moments being 29 to watch a bunch of trailers of movies that I have missed and will miss). We didn’t run or do much sports, except that we completed The Performance Series, having walked for more than half of the distances. To us, slipping away from the baby for a few hours so early in the morning, fighting off the thought to just skip the events, was already an achievement. So we are proud to show off our medal collection: 5 races, 50 km, 5 medals that merge to the map of Singapore.

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I was once asked by a friend how I managed to do all this. Well, the simple answer is that I have an amazing supporting system. I have a wonderful wife who supports me enormously in everything I do. She is the main breadwinner for the family while I’m on student’s stipend. She has two new roles this year, both of which are tough, and she does them all while being a breastfeeding mom. We are an excellent parenting team because one of us would often have an idea and the other would carry it out. I also have two mothers who help to take care of the baby: one put aside her job to stay here with us, and one who’s always ready to fly here on short notice and on special occasions. I have a helper who loves the baby and whom I can trust. I have two brothers, and I have my whole huge family behind me. At school, I have a very supportive, kind, enlightening advisor, and I have a wonderful teacher-mentor-friend too. I’m surrounded by smart people and good friends who give me idea, cheer me up, and share meals and family stories with me.

Looking back, I’m quite happy to give myself a pat on the back. I worked really hard on my study, putting my best in every tasks. I tried hard to spend as much time with my son as I could, trying to understand him. My flexible time often makes me the only dad among moms and nannies at playgrounds. I can sense his poo-poo smell better than anyone else. I missed some of his milestones, but I was there when he first walked (and it was today, of any days!) I’m a happy husband, father, and student. I’m a happy 30-year-old. Happy birthday to me!

I’ve completed one year in my PhD program

So the third term of the year is over, which means I’ve completed my first year in the programme. The focus of the first term was on coursework, and the second term on research. This term is a balance between both, with an extra component: teaching assistant duty.The work load is heavy, and I worked really hard. The last two weeks of the term was the toughest, with all the due dates coming together. But that’s not only true for me, it’s also true for my students. As a result, I also received more questions from students during the last two weeks. Looking back, I’m actually quite amazed with myself that I pulled through.

It would have been a complete fairy tale if the term had actually ended with a high note and I had actually done well with everything. Of course, life is not perfect. I tripped at the last step and didn’t do well at the final for one class. I was very disappointed. I liked the class very much and I had been doing well. Somehow I wasn’t in the right state of mind during the exam. Probably my brain was too stretched out during the two weeks. But it’s okay. I’m happy with the semester. I’m particularly happy for two reasons:

  1. I found an excellent collaborator who clicks with me and who is as serious as me. I’m looking forward to more collaborations with him. We already have something in mind.
  2. A student came to me asking about a life decision: whether it’s better to work first or to continue straight away with his PhD. I must have done something right in class so that he trusted me with this question.

Now that the term is over, it’s family time. I’m gonna spend the next two weeks focusing on my family to compensate for the last two weeks. I’m gonna be back to being a cool daddy!

And then it’s back to research. I’ll spend 3 weeks of serious research before the term starts again.

I just met my advisor one last time before the term really ends today. He gave me a handshake with a very firm grasp and a pat on the shoulder. That says everything.