Category Archives: I <3 Engineering

Conferences: Where your Research Takes on a Life of its Own

Another amazing comic by PhD Comics.

Life of a grad student involves getting excited over access to free catered food (because that’s a huge upgrade from free, yet slightly too cold pizza), hunching over computers or weird complicated looking instruments most hours of your day, and avoiding writing about what you’ve been hunched over and working hard for so long by means of procrastination (e. g., hours of video gaming for some, and mad crocheting of hats for others). These probably accurate descriptions of daily lives of most grad students are not necessarily the most glamorous part of grad school.

The glamour comes when you finally fight the demons of procrastination and communicate what exactly that weird instrument you’ve been working on is all about, or why the colourful graph on your computer is making you (and probably your advisor) so excited — and yes, labeling the axes of your graph really really helps in this process. If you don’t communicate what you’ve found, then the world won’t know anything about it, and that would be a tragic way to let your hopes and dreams of changing the world go down the drain.

Practically speaking, for those of us in our respective doctoral programs, publishing our research findings translates to career advancements. Journal publications typically have more weight when it comes to you playing that ‘when are you graduating?’ game. But when it comes to conference publications, that actually means fully funded (sometimes) international travel, and the privilege to present your work to the people who might actually want to know more about your work.

In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, there seems to be a hidden rule of thumb where if you’ve published more than a couple of journal papers, then your committee can’t really hold you back from adding the Dr. title in front of your name. So it may make sense to you that you should aim to publish journal papers, journals papers only, and pump them out fast.

But while that logic may work if your goal is to graduate quickly, it may not be the best of ideas if you are hoping to land a dream job after graduating, build a strong network of people you can collaborate with in the future, or make your research heard (literally & figuratively) to the people in your field. I mean, at the end of the day, advancing science, contributing new knowledge, helping to figure out how this world works.. these are the reasons why you’re hunched over your computer all the time, isn’t it? Well, maybe not for all of us, but you know. Conferences are where you find like-minded individuals who ‘get’ what you’re talking about, even when you haven’t even finished giving your elevator pitch. It’s also the place where friendship kind of emerges naturally, in a rather long-distance sort of way, because you get what they’re doing also — and that’s an amazing thing.

Another funny comic by PhD Comics. And yes, I think I know with a high level of certainty that more people read my blog posts than academic publications. Conveniently, Google Analytics tracks my Holy S#*% score.

Last week, I was in Germany attending the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction 2014 (HRI’14). Even before I got to the conference venue, I ran into two of my “friends in research” from Switzerland and Japan at one of the tram stations. I had met them at two different occasions, one at a conference held in the Netherlands, and the other at a different conference in San Francisco (well, through twitter first, but whatever). Although I had met them separately at different times, they somehow knew each other and were sharing a hotel room. When I got to the conference, I met my old roommate from a couple of years ago when I was attending a summer school in Germany. Then another person from that other workshop, that other conference, etc. You get the point.

These are all people that I connect with and can have hours of great, interesting, sometimes research-related and sometimes personal conversations with. These are also people that I would hang out with on Skype from time to time, or send them Christmas cards to, because they are awesome and dear people to me.

Back in the days, I thought that was just that. I care about my research, and I would be happy to tell you all about it, but other people probably don’t want to bother getting to know the details of my work. I’m happy to get to know other people, learn from them, make some new friends, and enjoy the travelling portion of my work while I’m at it.

But I’m realizing that conferences can be important because your work can take on a life of its own. Your audience, those who care, may actually find your work interesting, and incorporate it into their future work. It sounds dumb now that I spell it out like this, since the whole aim of conferences are to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. But as a grad student, it’s hard to imagine that such phenomenon can apply to your work as well. This is especially true, when a lot of us go through the emotional ups and downs of research life and ask with doubt ‘does any of this matter?’ or ‘does anyone care?’

So, I had one of the most amazing moments of my research life when I found out that my paper I presented at a conference a handful of years ago had really made an impact. A PhD student came up to me at the conference last week, and said that he’s happy to finally meet me because his research is inspired by the work I had presented in the past. He had an abstract of his work written and everything, citing the work that I make fun of myself with all too often. I make fun of my work because I think it’s funny that years of my work is about this seemingly tiny little human phenomenon of hesitation and how implementing them into human-robot interaction context can be useful for getting robots to work with us better. Hesitations, seriously? But then, yes, yes, I know! Someone else is also talking about hesitations in HRI now. How exciting!

I probably sound like I’m bragging about my research. But that’s not my intention. The point here is that I had nothing to do with the impact my work had — I’ve been totally oblivious about this effect. I just published what I had worked on, and the paper kind of took on a life of its own. In a very passive and serendipitous manner, it brought some new or different ideas in someone else’s mind, and was already swirling into something different, perhaps bigger and more exciting.

This post became much longer than I intended, but I hope it inspires those of us trying to fight off that writer’s block or procrastination demon and motivates you to start typing out that paper.

Now, go. Type away madly. Beautify that amazing figure — and label those axes. At some prestigious conference somewhere awesome, you’ll be the expert to present the amazing results. Who knows what impact that will have?

Creating Connections, Equal Opportunities?

Creating Connections 2013, opening panel. Photo by Dave Pelletier

A couple of weekends ago, I attended the Creating Connections 2013: Working Together to Transform our World conference. Creating Connections is a biannual conference that aims to empower women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by fostering discussions and conversations about gender issues in these fields.

If you are curious why we have these kinds of conferences in the first place, what people talk about at these conferences, or not sure what the whole gender issue is, then maybe I can help do my part to relieve your curiosity.

Dr. Jennifer Gardy

And please allow me to say this, but if you are one of those people who roll their eyes when hearing about women in STEM initiatives and think, “Ugh, seriously? Another one of those women in engineering things? Women have it so easy. Why don’t men have these things?” then I hope you this post will be helpful in changing your attitude about it, and then maybe we can be friends… eh hem.

Before you read on further though, here’s a disclaimer.

As a blogger who values posts that are written to be true to the writer’s opinions/views, rather than to serve secondary motives, I need to be honest with you and state that the conference was organized by one of my supervisors and people in the department I have close interactions with — i.e., I am heavily biased to highlight the positives, and positives only because they are really awesome people. I am not lying when I say that the conference was really great. It was really well organized, with amazing keynote speakers and panelists such as Drs. Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first female astronaut), Aimee Chan (CEO of Norsat), and Jennifer Gardy (Senior Scientist and guest host for Daily Planet), just to name a few out of the many.

Bob McDonald

But at the risk of making this entire post potentially brown-noser-sounding, I’m going to skip over all the compliments (albeit well deserved). Instead, I am going to talk about the meat of the 1.5-day conference, things that were said and unsaid, and stories that made people laugh and think hard – I might have to have a part II of this post now that I think about it. I think that would do more justice to the spirit of the conference.

Dr. Carin Bondar

The conference started with a punch on Friday evening with a panel of well-known science communicators: Bob Mcdonald, Dr. Carin Bondar, Cam Cronin, and moderator Dr. Jennifer Gardy.

Given the fact that all four of them are science communicators for public media, the panel discussion itself largely consisted of how media portrays men and women in science. There are some general and historical background that allude to the gender problem in science. Historically speaking there are brilliant women scientists who were left more in the background than they should’ve been because of their gender (e.g., Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie). Bob Mcdonald said that even today, it’s hard to get female experts to talk on Quirks and Quarks, not because they don’t try to look for them, but because there really aren’t that many.

Cam Cronin

The panelists alluded that the issue may lie in gender stereotyping in the media. When kids see more male scientists than women scientists on TV, are girls more likely to think that science is more of a boys’ thing? The close connection between media and how children may stereotype scientists was echoed by Saturday morning’s keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar. She humorously said that when she was growing up, she hadn’t matched astronauts to be a particularly male occupation because they were always wearing these thick suits. She thought they were known as space-people – you know, just another kind of people, like Asian-people living in Asia.

Then someone in the audience asked a question that a lot of people dare to ask women in STEM. That is, “why is it important that more women are in STEM?”

The panelist framed it well I think: It really shouldn’t matter whether you are a male or a female. The important thing is that we put down the barriers and give people equal opportunities.

And I think the key notion that a lot of people don’t realize is that providing equal opportunities isn’t simply accomplished by disregarding gender information when admitting students into STEM classes in universities.

In my opinion, the equal opportunity idea also has to do with making sure both boys and girls are equally encouraged to pursue their careers in STEM. And how would women in STEM be able to encourage careers in STEM to the next generation of scientists if today’s social infrastructure (e.g., having female washrooms in every building) doesn’t properly understand or tailor to gender differences?

To give you my personal anecdotes here, I had nothing but support and encouragement from my parents to pursue engineering when I was growing up. Historically speaking, the Republic of Korea (yes, the South one) was a third-world country coming out of the Korean War. Within only a handful of decades, it bloomed into a first-world country through lots of hard labour, military services in foreign countries, and adoption and development of science and technologies – this is known as the Han River miracle. That’s the same period when companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia came into being and grew up to be the international giants of today.

President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea

So my father’s generation grew up thinking that if you got an engineering degree, you are guaranteed a job and a prosperous life. The fact that South Korea’s new and first female president Park, daughter of a former president of Korea, has a degree in Electrical Engineering speaks to how pursuing engineering was encouraged in the country. That thinking was passed on to me and my sister, and no one discouraged me from wanting to pursue engineering even when I was the only borderline failing student in my elementary school math classes.

But after I had been in Canada for about four years and was applying to the University of Waterloo for their engineering undergrad program, one of my high school science teachers pulled me aside and asked me to reconsider my options.

She told me a story of her female childhood best friend who went to become a civil engineer, worked on sites with men most of the time, and came back a completely different person – much more masculine, blunt with swearwords in her speech, and overall not a very soft and tender kind of person my teacher remembered her to be. She was genuinely concerned that I would go through the same kind of phase as her friend and become a very manly and tough kind of person if I went to pursue engineering. I guess engineering was considered much more different in her mind than pure sciences, considering her occupation. Of course, I still went to get my degree in engineering anyway.

Engineering Female Error 404 by Engineer Memes

Surprisingly, when I went to KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology) and attended their mechanical engineering classes as an exchange student, the classroom was comprised of over 40% female students.

Believe it or not, the female students were just like typical Korean university female students in other programs. They wore heels, makeup, and proudly carried a feminine purse with equally feminine cell phones inside. And such classroom scene was accepted as a norm. That was really not the kind of lecture hall scene I was used to from UW. So I learned to wear heels and replaced backpacks with purses during my four months of gender balanced engineering experience in Korea.

Looking back, I think that my high school teacher really wanted what’s best for me, and that speaks to the problem.

I agree that after having been in Canadian engineering schools for almost a decade (holy cow!), I am different than I used to be. I think a lot of it came with some lessons I learned along the way in having to work in a male dominated environment. Would people who have known me or are getting to know me be dissuading their kids from becoming female engineers? Am I reinforcing a stereotype of female engineers in a particular direction? Maybe. I am not sure.

Yay~ I’m in a picture… lol. Creating Connections 2013, Photo by Dave Pelletier.

But I think it is clear that we need to break this cycle of gender stereotyping and to educate parents and teachers that girls pursuing STEM is something to be encouraged – at least as much as boys pursuing STEM. And in my opinion, that includes educating men in STEM about women in STEM issues so that I don’t get the default ‘holy cow’ look on men and women’s face when I say I am pursuing a PhD in robotics, and partially because that could have avoided diaper issues Dr. Bondar had when she went to space and realized that space suites were mainly designed with only male anatomy in mind.

PS. Actually, now that I think about it, I hope people continue to have ‘holy cow’ responses when I say I am pursuing a PhD in robotics, not because they’ve never imagined a female roboticist in their lives, but because they didn’t expect me to be so much older than I look 😉 lol!!!

A few epic fails and laughing at myself

Oh hello there, it’s been a while (and welcome new grad students!).

I think I often start my blog posts by explaining/justifying how long I haven’t been writing on iMech. I don’t think that’s healthy, but it’s hard not to be apologetic about this. I’m actually in Genoa, Italy, sitting at an eloquently prepared breakfast table by myself, typing away, and feeling quite uneasy and somewhat certain that one of the ants on the table will get into my laptop and short circuit.

Yes. I know. You might be thinking “AJung, stop it. Why on earth are you online and blogging? Get out there and enjoy the city.” But no worries. I’ll be quick on this one.

My temporary room in Genoa. 🙂

I just wanted to say that the weekend before flying out on my Europe trip (which is a work trip, not a vacation by the way — trust me on this one), I had an awesome time at the Gambier island with 17 other MEGA people. That’s thanks to Dr. Sheldon Green, our department head, who generously and courageously opened up his cottage for us grad students who wanted to go an epic retreat together. We had some (long) hiking sessions and amateur yoga sessions, but that trip deserves a longer post that this one. So I will post about it later and do justice.

The reason why I am blogging right now — my toast is gradually being donated to the ants btw… hmmp! — is that I had a few epic fail moments this morning and last night.

I had been in Bielefeld, Germany all of last week, and arrived at Genoa, Italy last night to meet with collaborators of mine and to give a talk at a workshop held here. It’s my second time visiting Genoa, and luckily so because my collaborators just happen to be located at such a beautiful city. But what I had forgotten about my first trip to Genoa made me go through a series of epic fails last night. And here are a few.

1) I forgot the fact that power plugs in Italy are different from Germany/NL. But I somehow managed to find the only plug in the entire house that allows me to use my two-prong plug. Yay! I feel like I’ll run into the same problem when I go to Switzerland later this week… hmmp…

2) I did not study Italian last year. I think I tried for like one day and forgot about it because of my mad thesis writing. So I made up for it by getting a 3G plan (a.k.a. google translate on the go). 3G is working now but I still don’t know my Italian phone number. Umm… yeah I should figure that out…

3) In Germany, I sat next to a lady and a child who were sneezing like crazy and now I think I have a cold. Drinking lots of orange juice everywhere I go in order to fight the cold is fighting my bladder room to try local drinks.

4) Feeling like I’ve been away from my family/friends for too long, I skyped home. Woke up the entire family (4am in Ontario) …

Dinner at a pizzeria I discovered last night. Yum~ super thin crust pizza~

So, going through these epic fails within such a short span of time, I was reminded of the time I first moved to Vancouver. When I was trying the transit system for the first time, I was so confused as to which direction I should put the transit tickets through (I didn’t have my U-pass then). And I didn’t know where to go to get a decent dinner for the first few days, because I lacked the type of local knowledge I now take for granted. And that was just me moving from one part of Canada to another. My move from Korea to Canada was more dramatic, but that’s another story.

It’s exciting. But at the same time, it makes you sigh that day to day events are so… eventful when you are not used to the environment you’re now in. With the ambitious thought that I might travel to Genoa more often than I had imagined a few years ago, I am going to explore the city and make this place a little bit more familiar to me than it is now (I’ve already discovered a cozy pizzeria nearby and haven’t got lost yet).

For now, here is a song that’s giving me an extra energy boost right now that, I hope, might give you an extra boost too (sorry, it’s K-pop, but oh well, I’m Korean lol).

Big hugs to everyone new to Vancouver, UBC, or a new environment in general. 🙂

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P.S. By the way, I had no idea they’d give me an Italian ad on YouTube when I’m in Italy. Wow!