On REU Students

About a month ago now, my office was unexpectedly flooded with a large number of undergraduate students.  Their expressions ranged from nervous to interested to bored.

Mine was one of pure panic.

You see, about 30 seconds before they entered, I had managed to spill an extra large mug of mango tea all over everything.  My desk, my papers, the keyboard, my pants, the floor…  Everything.

And here were these new students, ready to be welcomed and shown around.  Somehow, I managed to get up and greet them with a smile.  Then I squelched around for a few minutes, before sitting with them for a welcome talk.  In a cold classroom.  With wet pants.

Like this, but with a much larger mug

Despite my initial negative feelings about being invaded by undergraduates, I think it is great that they are here.  They are all participants in NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).  The general purpose of this program is to expose undergraduate students to all the annoyances glories of research.  For 10 weeks they focus solely on research and get a good idea of what it is like to be a graduate student.  If they like it, they now have experience that looks awesome on a resume.  And if they don’t, well, they get a pretty good stipend.  Win-win.

Let me tell you, these REU students have it good.  They have talks and seminars about climate change science, oceanography, giving presentations, etc…  They also get to go on field trips.  Seriously.  Field trips.  Of course, what else would you do in an oceanography department but go out on the water for a day.  Or take a geological tour of the surrounding countryside.

This is what I imagine their field trip to be like, only they would be larger.

The rest of their time, at least during the day, is spent doing research.  Depending on their advisor, they might work on a stand alone research project, or contribute a section to a larger research goal.  Three of them have moved into my office for the summer.  (Don’t worry, there’s plenty of space.)  They are all atmospheric science majors, which works out really well for us.  Being a physical oceanography center, we deal a lot with the atmosphere, but no one really *does* atmospheric work.  So the REU students are contributing their expertise to our ongoing, cutting edge research.

The interesting thing about the REU program is that it is very dependent on the host university.  As long as the local program director provides the students with research experience and some extracirrcular activities, NSF doesn’t seem to care too much how that is done.  I’ve participated in the REU program at two other universities as an undergrad, as well as observing the one going on now.  They all felt quite different, but each was beneficial in its own way.

Here, besides the fun stuff, the students get experience with the other main part of research – presenting your work.  They gave a short, introductory talk the week after they arrived.  Then, at the halfway point, they will give another short talk about their progress.  The program finishes up with a final presentation and a paper.  If things work out well, they might even get published!

If you are interested in participating in the REU program, applications are different for individual universities and are typically due around December or January.  Unfortunately, it is only open to US citizens or permanent residents.  If you can’t participate in the program, I would strongly suggest getting research experience somewhere before going to graduate school.  But more on that topic later.

Have you ever participated in research as an undergraduate?  What did you think of the experience?  Did it give you a better idea of what graduate school would be like?  I’m curious to see what others’ experiences were like!

Productivity Hacks: Background Music

If you pick the right sort of music to listen to while you work, the day can just fly by. I just love having those awesomely productive day while rocking out.  The problem is always the day (or two) after.  For some reason, I can’t get back to the same productivity level.  And so I change genres.  Or try silence for a few days.  Once I’ve managed to completely forget all about that awesomely productive day, I get another one!

Clearly, I am not satisfied with these few and far between days.  So I did some personal research on listening to music while working.  Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Major Finding: Different tasks require different music

Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, various types of music can help or hinder your concentration.  I started experimenting after I found this guide about what types of music are best to listen to, based on the job you have.

My day to day life in grad school can be split into three main task categories: Programming/Coding, Data Analysis, and Writing.  For each of these, I have a specific style of music I listen to, to help me focus.

For programming & coding, I find that techno style music works best.  Recently, I’ve taken my dose of techno in the form of European club mixes.  Programming uses up a lot of my higher-level brain function, and I easily get burnt out after working through a problem.  With techno-style music in the background, my coding thoughts get into a rhythm in sync with the beat.  So even if I finish off a rather difficult section of code, as long as the music is still going, my brain wants to keep working in the same way.  I no longer have to use more effort to stay at the same level of thinking.

This is what programming feels like with the right music.

For data analysis work, the reasoning is a bit similar.  I want music that keeps my brain working well.  In this case, however, I am dealing with concepts as well as numbers.  And I find music with words to be too distracting.  So I turn to video game music.  The key point with video game music is that it is designed to help you concentrate, but stay in the background.  Exactly what I need!  I personally have been listening to the soundtracks from the Halo series, Portal (and Portal 2), Myst, Riven, and Ocarina of Time.  Pick your own favorite and see how it goes.

Last on my list is writing.  I used to be able to write with any sort of background music.  But, as my writing got more technical and scientific, music became more distracting than helpful.  My latest find is an ambient music mixer.  You can listen (for free!) to a variety of ambient sounds, choosing what works best for you.  If you love working in a coffee shop with the hum and buzz of conversation, but are too poor for steady drink refills, you can just turn this on at your desk.  My personal favorite is the sound of rain and thunderstorms.  Especially since rainy days make people more productive.

Overall, my results from this experiment are very positive.  Switching up music types helps get my brain in gear for the task at hand, and helps me stick with it longer.  I have noticed that the change in productivity during a session of say programming, or writing, is not really that large.  Instead, I see the most improvement in my consistency.  I get a little more done each day, and it is much easier to come back to it again the next day.

As a poor, broke graduate student, I recommend getting your music from a free source.  I use Pandora to randomize and discover new artists, and Grooveshark when I know exactly what I’m looking for.  Or, find your own source.

So, have you discovered any types of music that help your productivity?  And, since I stay behind my computer all day, what would be a good type of music for lab or field work?

Upcoming research cruise

I am excited to announce that I will be participating in a research cruise this summer!  Of course, the main reason I jumped at the opportunity was to meet my ship time/field work requirement to graduate.  Three weeks at sea sounds much better than 10 days traipsing around marshes risking mosquitoes, ticks, and all manner of creepy-crawlies.  I’m much more of a water person than a rock person anyways.

My future home for 3 weeks, the R/V Hugh R. Sharp

Right, back to the cruise.  The project is DANCE, or Deposition of Atmospheric Nitrogen to Coastal Ecosystems.  (I just love science acronyms, don’t you?  We’ve been calling ourselves DANCErs.)  The title is rather self-explanatory, but let me break it down for you.  The purpose of the cruise is to see how much nitrogen is deposited on the surface of the ocean after a rain event, and how it affects the phytoplankton living there.

Phytoplankton!  In this case, coccolithophores.

Now, nitrogen, along with phosphorus and carbon, is one of the major nutrients required to support basic plant life.  In the case of the ocean, our “plants” are phytoplankton, small single celled organisms that take up sunlight.  They form the basis of the food chain in almost any ocean ecosystem: Phytoplankton are eaten by other larger plankton, which are eaten by even larger plankton, which are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, and well, you get the point.  Rain, especially rain that has been polluted by the atmosphere over large cities, can carry with it enough nitrogen to provide phytoplankton an extra source of nutrients.  Or, so we are hypothesizing.

What I imagine the food chain looks like, more or less…

The study area is off the East Coast of the US, in the mid-Atlantic.  This region is ideal, as it gets a significant amount of rain each summer, so that we will actually catch a rain shower while we are out on the ship.  Most of the weather here comes from the west, so it is likely to carry enough nitrogen from being polluted from all those East Coast cities.  Finally, once you get far enough away from the coast, out near the Gulf Stream, there are less sources of nutrients.  Thus, the additions from the rain should make a large enough impact to be seen.

Hoping for a nice peaceful rain, no storms please!

Now, being a physical oceanographer, I want nothing to do with all this nitrogen business.  Too much chemistry work to measure and chart nutrients.  Luckily for me, I will be working with a climate scientist while on board.  He is specifically interested in the physical conditions of our study area; the meteorological conditions that are bringing the rain to the area, and the physical characteristics of the water in which the phytoplankton live.  Specifically, I will be taking hydrographic measurements on the cruise, that is, measurements of the water temperature and salinity.  These aren’t direct measurements on the phytoplankton, but they can tell us a lot about what is going on in the study area.  Here’s a brief overview:

This is who I am NOT.  But, good for you, chemists!

Water temperature can tell us how well the phytoplankton are doing.  They can survive at a range of temperatures, but if they get close to the edge of that range, or if the temperature changes too quickly, they might go into shock.  Scientifically, this is referred to as “the phytoplankton are unhappy”. Unhappy phytoplankton may stop growing and using nutrients, even if they are available, which would throw off our results.

In this specific case, it is more likely that salinity changes will make the phytoplankton unhappy.  Like temperature, there is a range of salinities at which phytoplankton do well, and a range at which they are unhappy and eventually die.  If we encounter a large rainstorm, the rain on the surface of the ocean may make it too fresh for the phytoplankton, and they wouldn’t use up the extra nitrogen from the rain.  However, if there is enough mixing in the upper ocean layer, then the salinity wouldn’t change that much overall, and the nitrogen would be available for the phytoplankton to use.  By seeing what the salinity in the ocean looks like, we can tell what is happening to the phytoplankton.

Once we measure both temperature and salinity, we can use those to calculate density.  Remember, cold water is denser than warm water, and salty water is denser than fresh water.  Density will let us examine other sources of nutrients.  There are essentially two states for the ocean to be in: stratified or mixed.  In the stratified state, there is a layer of water warmed by the sun (and sometimes freshened by rain) on top of a layer that is denser, and these layers will stay mostly separate if there is nothing to mix them.

Phytoplankton can only survive in the upper layer of the ocean, since once they get too deep, there is not enough light to survive.  In the deeper layers of the ocean, there are more nutrients, since there aren’t any living phytoplankton to use them up.

This stratified state can turn into a mixed state, where the two layers mix together down to a certain depth, normally from being stirred around by wind.  So when we measure after a rain event, if we see two layers of density, the stratified state, we know that any extra nitrogen the phytoplankton are using up is from the rain.  However, if we don’t see two layers near the top of the ocean, then there was probably enough wind with the rain to mix the ocean and bring deep nutrients to the surface.  So any extra nitrogen in that system could be either from the deep ocean or from the rain.

Whew, what an explanation!  Temperature and salinity can tell us a lot more about the ocean than what I’ve just mentioned, but I’ll come back to that another time.

I plan to blog my experiences over the course of this cruise.  After all, being an ocean modeler, I don’t get out much and don’t experiment at all!  This will be a great chance for me to learn more about observational oceanography and how ocean data is collected from a ship.  (I normally find all my data online – someone else does the hard work.)  Check back for more updates as we get closer to mid-July!