Monthly Archives: May 2011

Reflection on Grad Student Life – Finances and Meaningfulness…

I came across a very touching quote by Dalai Lama at a coffee shop a couple of days ago. I had been anxious, complaining, and somewhat angry lately, and the quote allowed me to take a moment to catch my breath. In search for the quote, I surfed online and came across the following quote instead.

Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.
Dalai Lama

It’s not the most touching quote ever, but it shed light to the relevance of meaningfulness to my grad student life. Why had I been in a bitter mood lately? And what’s the deal with the sudden use of quotes from Dalai Lama? Please read on, and let me explain.

The Bitterness Explained – the Finances:

For one, I’m dealing with the aftermath of having paid my summer tuition earlier this month, which has substantially cut down the amount of protein I can consume for this and the next month and adds financial stress into my usually well lubricated daily system. The increased tuition in combination with the increased residence fee was not the sweetest pill to swallow.

To do a quick math, a graduate student at UBC living on-campus need to consider the following expenses per month:

  • ~$800 residence fees (rent) per month (this applies to most Mech grads I know, who live in Marine Drive residences)
  • >$150 groceries (not including eating out, and calculated based on my expenses. Note: I’m apparently tiny, and I shop at some of the cheapest produce stores near campus)
  • ~$402 per month set aside to pay tuition every term

So, realistically, you’re looking at a minimum of $1400 per month of expenses for your essential survival (academic, housing, food) needs if you’re living on campus.This estimate is, of course, not including the health insurance, student fees, occasional shopping needs, cell phone bills, and various other fees that students pay up front in lump sum with Fall term tuition.
This also does not include social needs, such as going out for coffee, eating out about once or twice a month with friends (I think it’s reasonable), having a delicious yet fatty cupcake or a japadog downtown to experience Vancouver, etc. Super realistically speaking, if you are planning to fly home during holidays (depending on where you live), or plan on going somewhere for a vacation you are likely going to need financial support from external sources – i.e., parents, student loans, credit card debt?! etc.

So how do students make ends meet? Most students take on a teaching assistance-ship to balance out the income vs. expenses I think. That’s what I did last Fall. I didn’t take on any TA-ships last term though, since I wanted to focus on my thesis. So it’s kind of my fault, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to get my stuff done as much as I have to date if I had been TAing on the side.

And my laptop decided to be super awesome with me and run out of hard drive space just when I need to convert it into a dual boot machine (sarcasm here?! yes, indeed!). I did everything I could (deleted everything unnecessary), but it is still asking for an extensive level of patience and anger management from me with its old age, lack of RAM, and HDD space. The moment my chequeing account shows a positive number, I am going to replace my HDD, install another OS.

Dalai Lama Quote Explained – Meaningfulness: So, why the quote?

Well, I am coming to the realization that despite the temporary bitterness of dealing with finances as a grad student at UBC, and despite the long hours at the lab, I do what I do in the way I do it, because I like to think there is something meaningful about my work that makes everything worthwhile.

By the time I graduate, the 2 years I will have spent thinking about my projects on the bus, talking about them on date(s) (bad idea according to my lab buddies btw, and should be reserved for conferences/seminars), and working on it day and night will be something of the past.

I guess it’s sad to be thinking about it that way.

You get so attached to these technical projects that often you don’t want to let it go… I remember being really attached to a set of manufacturing systems I helped develop at an automation company I worked at as a co-op student. When the project was done and the system was carried into transport trucks, to be delivered to the clients obviously, I was shocked to see how much attachment I had developed with the ruggedly looking assembly of machine that was far from being cute or animate. That was only four months of working on the project.

And to think that a project I’ve worked on for years will become something of the past someday to be let go…! Am I the only one who has attachment issues with technical projects???! Dealing with the caveats of being a grad student for the specific purpose of finishing the project probably will make it harder.

Uncertainties of how things will pan out also makes it a bit more awry. I mean, if my only purpose in this project was to build something that I knew was going to work, then I there would be less uncertainties. But with the kind of data requiring statistical significance to make the conclusion I want, it’s always uneasy thinking that there may not be statistical significance!! Ahhh!!

In short, if I just focus on the outcome of my research as the only goal of living a grad student life, then I feel like I’ve signed up to play a gamble with an unknown chances of winning within the given amount of time I’ve set out to play the game. But if I think one of the main reasons for walking this path is not only because I want to get the results I want (which would be nice to have), but more because there is meaning to walking the paths that I am walking regardless of what I find at the end of the tunnel, then grad school doesn’t seem like a huge gamble with an unknown probability of failure, but rather an investment with 100% probability of success.

UBC Mech (grad) goes Web 2.0

So, I think UBC Mech is becoming arguably more jazzy department of all in terms of grad student social life. I am saying that partially because I just updated the MEGA (Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association) today.

Since its (re)birth about 1.5 years ago, MEGA has established quite a presence within the department.

Let’s take a look at some of them, in case you are not at UBC yet, or you filtered out the weekly emails MEGA sends out via the student mailing list.

First, we try to make sure hard working grad students don’t miss a meal via our MEGA Meal program, where we have frozen dinners at different labs and at the Mech office fridge for $2~3 per meal. Affordable? No kidding.

Second, we run lots and lots of social events than ever before. I mean, right now MEGA is running a weekly digest of upcoming events for the summer, because we are afraid you will feel ‘spammed’ by the number of upcoming events we have planned (and still being planned) for the summer. We’ve been holding Pizza + Movie Nights (the upcoming movie night is taking place this Thursday, May 26th, 6pm, where we’ll watch The Simpsons Movie), thanks to our treasurer, Navid Shirzad. MEGA Hiking Series for the summer is also being run via Eric Pospisil, the first hike of which will take place this Saturday (May 27th, 9am – 5pm, Norvan Falls). To be honest, although I’ve been in Vancouver for over a year, I don’t really know the area that well. So I’ve only gone hiking twice during my entire MASc career, although there are (apparently) numerous places to check out. I still need to do the Grouse Grinds by the way… I hope Eric will put the Grouse mountain on his hiking series’ list-of-places-to-go-hiking.

Third, people meet weekly to chill, with no pressure. With the brilliant idea brought forth by one of the MEGA executives (I forget who, but I think it’s one of Ambrose Chan, Kevin Ou, or Thomas Huryn), we have been holding a Coffee Social once every week where people can show up to enjoy free coffee and cookies/timbits. Turns out, it’s a great way to meet new people outside of your research area/lab, and to get to know each other. We occasionally get into discussions about MECH 598 seminar course (the course we all have to take) and PhD qualifying exams, complain and laugh, eat and drink the brown liquid of life. I’m really appreciative of that, because it forces me to get out of my ‘workaholic’ tendencies and look at people’s faces in between starting at computer monitors and talking to voice-command-disabled robots.

Some of you prospective students may wonder, ‘Socialising? I’m not really big on that…’ or ‘Why would I want to waste my time socialising with other students? I’d rather do research.’ But trust me. Most grad students I’ve met (within and outside of UBC Mech) have displayed a plenty amount of loneliness regardless of their relationship status. Many factors contribute to grad student loneliness issue, but I think my previous uber-long post sheds light to that point a little bit.

I must admit, being a MEGA executive member (I’m the public relations director, i.e., I’m the designated spam person) takes a bit of time out of my usual work day. On Wednesdays, I usually don’t get much research done because I have a lab meeting from 11:00am-12:30pm, followed by an hour of MEGA executive meeting from 1pm-2pm, which is then followed by the weekly coffee social at 2pm-3pm. So if I wake up late on Wednesdays, I’m pretty much running around meetings and other stuff until 3pm.

Ambrose, the President of MEGA

But I don’t really mind it so far, because the MEGA council is quite small, and almost lacks bureaucracy in its decision making process. Ambrose is an open-dialogue type president, who asks more questions to the members than makes statements so that everyone’s opinions are heard.

Eric, the Vice Prez

Eric is the vice president with a meticulous mind, who is almost incapable of forgetting to do stuff he promised to do, and always asks the “what if..?” questions. Matthew Pan is a super organised and down-to-earth secretary who often quite fittingly says “Let’s Do It!” before he excitedly writes down presented ideas onto the MEGA meeting minutes.

Matt, the Secretary

Navid is your boy-next-door type treasurer who is usually the first to volunteer to help out and to organise, so that the team’s gears are well oiled.

And then… there’s me. I think I’m the most alpha person in the group, although the only female. I don’t really do much other than send out announcements, make weekly digest emails, and (… surprise, surprise!…) socialise with staff members and other grad students.

But starting today, you may see more of me in action (maybe), because MEGA now has a facebook page!

It’s actually pretty cool that our group is expanding our presence in Web 2.0 world, because I think it really presents our sense of connectedness as a group to the rest of the world. I mean, one of the key reasons why I decided to do my phD here at UBC as well is because of the sense of community that is playing a key part to my happiness as a graduate student in the lonely quest to find the next new knowledge for the world. I must admit, I’m a bit of a Web 2.0 person, so I am probably a bit more overjoyed about this than others. I write for two blogs (, and this one), I use twitter on a regular basis, run the Roboethics facebook group with Dr. Veruggio in Italy, am on, host many publicly accessible research references on Mendeley, and have a LinkedIn and profiles. A bit too much? Maybe… I’m just trying to make roboethics and human-robot interaction information more accessible to people though.

Anyway, I think the facebook group is showing success already. Matt opened up the MEGA Facebook group about 4 hours ago with about 10 people added to the group. Now, after 4 hours, we already have 24 people in the group. So subscribe yourself to it, post on the wall, answer Navid’s “Suggest the next movie for the upcoming Movie Night!” polls, and edit the group document I made on “Useful links for UBC Mech Grads” (“Bladerunner” is winning against “Jurassic Park” for the next movie night btw, woot woot!).

MEGA has a Facebook Group!

I think it could be super useful for even new/prospective grad students to join and ask questions on facebook. I mean, writing a paragraph long email to a professor, or his/her graduate student can take hours to polish, but asking a one liner question on facebook is a bit less of a pressure that way. I just hope the pressure will be off of MECH 598 this way as well, but that may be asking for a bit too much…?! I should write up a blog post on the seminar course sometime. But with the abovementioned awesomeness with MEGA in mind, I am kind of glad that MEGA gets a very positive support from the department. We have been borrowing the department’s fridge, stock up MEGA meals in the Mech office fridge, invade the Faculty lounge into a Faculty + Grad lounge etc., but overall we could do it because of the department support (this is where you say “Awww~”).

Anywho, I am excited to be on facebook getting feeds from the MEGA facebook group.

Are you excited? See you online! 😀

Umbrella Farm

You probably noticed already that I tend to blog more frequently when I don’t want to do work. Yes… it’s true…

I felt a bit productive last night, but didn’t want to do the ‘real’ work, so I ended up writing a huge post.

And then I realized that I actually wanted to post a few photos from the conference. The conference I went to last week (ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) was held in Vancouver, at the fabulous Vancouver Convention Centre.

Since it was a conference highly connected to social media, and things online, there was  a lot of comments on twitter amongst the delegates regarding the weather, the venue, and the city. It was quite sunny the first day (Monday), but did eventually rain during the conference, resulting in a thread of posts regarding umbrella uses at the conference. Quite cute I must say.

Here’s one:

@reidpr said: Umbrella farm at #chi2011 has grown substantially.

This is a picture from inside the convention centre by the way, which was a reply to the previous post by someone else:

Anywho, I am really glad that there’s such a great venue in Vancouver. It makes me feel good when welcoming people, and also makes it easy to attend conference because some of them are local. I mean, this is the second conference I’ve been to that was held in Vancouver, and I am glad to have been to both of them (quite easily so, due to the substantially lower cost of travel in attending them). And I don’t really mind the rain as much, because it’s a good conversation starter with people who are new in town, and I’ve grown to enjoy the mugginess in a cheery way…

“I’m singing in the rain~ I’m singing in the rain~ What a glorious feeeeling, I’m haaaapy again!”