Category Archives: In the Lab

Building Closed… Again

The other day I got to school just in time for the building to be evacuated. The power went out, and then there were some bad smells, so they evacuated the building. Eventually they said that it was just because the fume hoods weren’t venting correctly. But we didn’t have power most of the day. I went to the undergraduate reading room for a while. The only other person there was one of the professors from my qualifying exam. Later I ended up working in another room with another professor. Apparently all the other grad students just went home. I would have I guess, but I just drove there, and I had to tutor someone that afternoon, so I didn’t want to drive home and then drive again to tutor that night.

I think this is probably at least our fourth major power outage this year. It’s getting a bit ridiculous. One time the pumps stopped and the labs in the basement flooded. Another time was the crazy explosion on campus. Another time it was because a rat was in the wires and got fried. We just like to have excitement.


There’s Another Girl in my Group!!

Woohoo!! While I enjoy my group immensely, there was a period of time where I was the only girl. It was just me and 20-25 guys. Yep…

It was fine, though it did result in entertaining things like all the guys changing in our office. They would just tell me not to look and they would change. It was rather funny actually.

But now there are actually two new female grad students. So it’s nice!

Women in Physics and Tool Use

I’m doing a program this summer in which I have an undergraduate student work in my lab on a project for the summer. I have done several programs like this and had a couple of undergraduates and high school students work with me for the summer, but this is the first time that I was responsible for reviewing applications, interviewing, and selecting the student all myself. I had three applicants, one female and two male. I interviewed all three, and I was struck by the difference between the two groups. The two men both had lots of research experience, and the woman had none, but there were differences even before college. The two boys both had a lot of experience with programming and building since they were in middle school. They had both done robotics and other things that had given them lots of experience. The girl had worked on a project with building cars or something in college, but she hadn’t actually built anything yet, and she didn’t have any experience yet. I know that this is an incredibly small sample size, but it made me think.

I have heard people talk about part of the problem with there being less women in physics is that women are less likely to use tools and gain experience building things until they are advanced in college or even in graduate school. One of the graduate students I worked with always used to ask people if they had ever built anything during their interview process. He asked me, but had already googled me and knew one of the things I had built. I told him a radio and different kinds of circuits, and he kept saying, “Anything else? Anything else? Anything else?” until I finally told him about the human-sized hamster wheel I built in college, which was what he knew I had already built. Women’s lack of familiarity with tools is something I have talked about with the women in physics group. I think it is something that affected me less than many other students, because my second mom did most of the home repair in our house, and I was the one who helped her with it most of the time, because my brothers were just not interested. I had always liked building things. My brothers used to get me to put together their Lego toys and then they would go play with them. Once when we were at my dad’s house, he bought a new futon. I wanted to put it together, but my dad and his crazy second wife wouldn’t let me, because boys were supposed to build things not girls. They made my brothers–who didn’t want to do it–put it together, so then all three of us were mad. Anyway, I had always liked to put things together. In high school, we built deer stands, deer feeders, and other things in some of my agriculture classes. And in college, I got to build the human-sized hamster wheel with SPS and circuits and things in my lab classes. So I felt somewhat prepared, and while I had less experimental lab experience than some other people and didn’t feel completely ready for lab work, but I knew enough that I felt reasonably comfortable that I could learn how to do the rest.

But I now sort of understand this problem. Girls tend to do things other than build robots and learn to program in middle school. Why that is I’m not quite sure. Some of it is that people like my dad tell girls that they can’t do things, but that is probably not the main problem. My first post-doc Sarah said that there are some things that girls are better at like building and putting together really small things, because they tend to do lots of crafts like beading and making friendship bracelets when they were kids. So maybe some women do have skills, but their skills aren’t as likely to be recognized as useful even by themselves. I don’t know exactly what the problem is or even how important it is, but it is something I haven’t thought that much about before, but it’s something to think about.

Ahhh… Research

The other day, I was talking to my little brother Devin on Skype, and he said the most profound thing about research. We often have homework dates, and we were just chatting about other things afterward.  Devin said: “Ahh… Research. Can’t live with it. Can’t do a follow up experiment without taking two years to fix a machine.”

This may not be everyone’s experience with research, but it definitely captures the frustration grad students feel when this happens. Of course, Devin followed up this statement with “I never want to do research.” I think I might have killed any desire to do research that he might have had.  Oops…

I Need to Sacrifice to the Lab Gods

You know those days where everything just goes wrong.  I think I have been having those for several weeks as far as the lab work is going.

Our machine parts were delayed by an extra week or two due to machinists getting sick and going on vacation and what not.  But they were finally finished today.  Yay!!!!  So we went to pick them up.  First we checked to make sure they were right, and then we wanted to clean them and make sure they fit together with the rest of the heat shields that are already clean.

The pieces are pretty big—the biggest is around 9 inches in diameter—so we had to use the extra large ultrasonic cleaner.  So we pull it out and fit it into the fume hood and fill it with water, by itself not an easy task.  We get everything just about ready, and then it doesn’t work.  Sigh.  We replaced the fuses on the control box, because they were blown.  But as soon as we plug the cleaner in they blow again, so there is a short somewhere in the cleaner itself.  So we dump out all the water and take it apart as much as we can to find the problem, but then we just can’t take it apart anymore.  So now our sonicator is in pieces on the lab floor and we’ve blown most of the fuses trying different things, but we are no closer to a solution.

This is just one day I realize, but both sets of our piezomotor drivers have died recently, so now both instruments are down.  Not that the Toucan wasn’t down already because of this whole heat shield problem.

We have just been having a lot of bad luck lately, so I need to sacrifice an undergrad to appease the lab gods.  Undergrads beware. =)

Waiting for the Machine Shop

In order to fix the problem with our thermal short, we had to slightly redesign one of our heat shields.  So now we are waiting for the machine shop to finish building the new parts.  Then we have to send them off to get gold plated, and then we can finally put our STM back together.  Yay!!!!

The Beast (the other instrument) is looking at C60 (buckyballs) and NaCl on a gold surface.  The pictures are quite pretty.  I’m going to process some of the images, and then maybe I will post some.

In other news, the Argon-ion laser is up and running.  It is giving me a little bit of a problem.  Over 40 mW of power is coming out of the laser, but then when you measure the power after putting the light through a fiber couple it is down to only 0.5 mW of power.  I know that the coupling is just really terrible, but it is turning out to be a royal pain to increase it anymore.  Luckily it turns out that for the moment that power seems to be enough.

I was joking that we needed to name the laser, since I have spent the better part of a week sitting next to it.  I decided that we needed a name that starts with A, but I couldn’t think of one (that doesn’t already belong to my lab mates or my brother).  Aaron suggested Aragorn, because he thought I would appreciate it.  My labmates are always teasing me about how nerdy I am.  I suggested Arnold, but then we compromised on Aragon (without the second r), so it is just slightly less obviously nerdy.  Of course there is another set of fantasy books about a guy named Eragon.  When I mentioned that though, the eyes started rolling.  Apparently I am too nerdy and read too many books for my own good.

Galled Screws and Thermal Shorts

Today at least I finally started to make some progress.  Yay!!!!

I figured out that the problem with our clamping mechanism was actually that the screw was galling into the Helicoil, not that there was something wrong with the wobblestick.  At least that is one less thing that we have to fix at the moment.  So I replaced the screw, and that was pretty good.

Then I looked in the inside and found the thermal short.  I thought of several ways of fixing it and some other ways of testing if it is even still there, so we don’t have to keep getting cold and warm again, so that is good.

Making progress is so nice, though I will be really happy when Aaron gets back.  As it is I keep having to find one of the undergrads or high school students to help me do simple things, but then I have to steal random other grad students and post-docs to help me with the more complicated parts.  It’s kind of a pain.  But at least I am making some good progress at last.

Cold Instrument

I’m sitting in lab basically watching the STM warm up.  It’s so slow.  There has got to be another way.  I run hot gas through the cryostat and am shining light on it, but it’s still taking days to warm up.  Such a pain in the neck.  Oh well, it will be done soon.  Then we can finally start fixing it and whatnot.  I am so bored though.  I am babysitting it, because I don’t want the lightbulb on a stick to burn up the STM, but it is awfully boring and I am getting sleepy.  Grad students have such exciting lives.

Broken Toucan

So I decided to get back into blogging.  And I realized that I sort of haven’t written in several years.  Not that anyone cares, but I am writing for me mostly anyway, so here goes.

Our instrument (the Toucan) is broken again.  We were really close to having it working again, but then our wobble stick stopped working and we have some kind of thermal short between our helium cryostat and our nitrogen cryostat.  We started eating helium like crazy, so now we have to warm it up and vent it and try to fix it.  But we are pretty close to having it working.  The only thing is that I feel like we are always perpetually close to having it working.  But the STM seems to damp pretty well thanks to the new magnetic damping.

Also, my little brother is visiting me.  However, he has spent an awful lot of his visit hanging out with us in the lab.  I hope he is not too terribly bored.  But he helps us put stuff together and do some other random stuff.  And when we have to warm up the instrument, we have to pump out all of the liquid nitrogen, and so I took the undergrads and high school students and my little brother to freeze fruit and flowers and leaves and other random things.  They particularly enjoyed smashing frozen fruit with a hammer.  It’s amazing how even though I know scientifically how cold liquid nitrogen is and have seen it freeze things many times, it is still kind of amazing when it breaks.  You just don’t expect it to break, because the fruit looks perfectly normal, even though you know in your head that it will.