Monday, August 24, 2015

PhD Program Day 1: "Read, I forget. Hear, I remember. Do, I understand"

First day of my PhD program in Geoscience at Temple! Woke up around 7am, had my standard breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, tea, and an egg, and biked to campus. It's still rather warm out, so sweating is still a concern - I need to think of a better way to transport a change of clothes without them getting wrinkly.

First class was groundwater modeling, which will be largely about learning to use MODFLOW. My experience with the last ~3 years with the MDH was using analytical element method modeling (MLAEM) or stochastic modeling (Oneka). A few of my coworkers there used MODFLOW, but for some reason the analytical stuff stuck around. At times it felt very much like "Coke vs. Pepsi" wars. Either way, I think it'll be good to learn a new modeling code. Besides, many of the concepts are the same - for an initial class exercise, we needed to draw some flow-lines based on potentiometric contours both in map and cross-section view (draw from high to low head, cross potentiometric lines at ~right angles), which are things I had done numerous times as a hydrologist.

I can draw perpendicular to potentiometric lines, I swear.

I was worried being away from school for a few years would be difficult, but for this course, if anything, having 3 years of applied experience in groundwater modeling has really helped out. Terms such as "line sink" and "sensitivity analysis" weren't things I now had to learn to get a grade, but instead concepts I knew very well. While those around me might have read the chapter, and likely forgot, and might now remember them from lectures, I understood them from much doing.

Having real world experience before getting a PhD may have some real benefits

I spent the afternoon chatting with my adviser about research ideas, committee selection, an upcoming karst conference in Puerto Rico, and the anticipated road to graduation.

The next class of the day was advanced low-temperature geochemistry. I went to get some caffeine, carbs, and salt to prep my brain.


Cheese shouldn't be this color or consistency. Still, goes well with those big pretzels...

Geochem has always been one of those classes that fascinates as well as stumps me, as I always want to learn more about it but it always seems so challenging. I had taken a geochemistry class as a master's student, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I struggled with chemistry as an undergrad back in the day, and since them the subject has always terrified me a bit, although there is a very good chance that has more to do with life at the time I took the class and less to do with the material.

We went over some basics at the start of class, much of it I recall from many science classes I took before, although I remembered a surprising amount about a topic that I learned a lot about outside of school - radioactive decay.

My old roommate and I were kind of kitchen scientists, and would watch a lot of YouTube videos of people doing random science experiments at home. One of those we tried was to make a cloud chamber using an old fish tank, dry ice, and some isopropyl alcohol. In essence, we create an environment in the tank with super-saturated alcohol vapor, and when an ionizing particle enters the tank and strikes the vapor, it condenses and forms a streak. The different styles of radiation (mostly Beta particles and Gamma rays) produce different streaks - the gamma streaks and long and thin, and the Beta streaks and short and squat, which is a result of the properties of the two.

As a result of that experiment, I ended up reading a lot about radiation on my own time, for fun. I even bought a little sample of uranium ore as a source of radioactive particles to test out in the chamber.

It comes with a certificate and everything!

It's more impressive in video format, but the arrows are pointing to the ends of the particle streaks (white) where the alcohol vapor has condensed due to an ionizing particle passing through the chamber. Hey, we were detecting subatomic particles in our kitchen - pretty cool in my book.

Learn for fun! It doesn't always have to be in an academic setting


Afterward, I biked back home with my roommate/officemate (she's also in the program) to make a giant pizza, then she's been making a lemon meringue pie for the department. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it before morning >.>


"Someone broke into our house and stole the pie and left everything else untouched, I swear"

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