Friday, March 11, 2005

Everyone should be tidy when they eat

Let me tell you about my thesis proposal. It was quite a time in my life. The stuff of nightmares, really. Actual nightmares. People have literally dreamed that this happened to them.

I gave my thesis proposal in my third year of grad school, having spent two and a half years working on my project, doing experiments, gathering data. The night before I was supposed to hand in the written proposal to my committee, which was two weeks before the oral presentation, The P.I. was reading it over for editing purposes. That’s when it happened.

“This calculation,” he said. “Are you sure about the units? Can I see the spreadsheet?” So we looked at the spreadsheet on the computer. And you know what we found? We found that in my spreadsheet, the spreadsheet which I used over and over to analyze two and a half year’s worth of data, was wrong. It seems that I had multiplied some numbers by 10-9 Newtons, but called them pico-Newtons. The problem? Pico- is 10-12. That’s three orders of magnitude off. The numbers I was reporting were actually one thousand times larger than I was claiming them to be. And with the correct units, none of the numbers made any sense at all. Essentially everything I had done so far in the lab was wrong.

So on this, the worst night of my career, we went back and examined the raw data, which was on videotape. We found the source of the problem: My major experiment on which my entire thesis was to be based, was flawed. I won’t go into the technical details here (you’re welcome), but long story short, some fluid was flowing where it wasn’t supposed to be flowing. I was trying to measure force, and this extra fluid flow made it impossible to measure.

I ended up asking my committee members if I could give them my written proposal late (no problem since most committee members don’t read thesis proposals until the night before the presentation, if that early), and I spent the next few days desperately trying to salvage some information from the data on the videotapes. I made some estimations to make the old data presentable, and we came up with another way to do the experiment which would use the extra fluid flow as an advantage. But it was a truly awful two weeks.

I don’t remember much from the actual presentation. Just two things, really. The first is when, during the closed-door question and answer period, one of my committee members said, “Why are you even doing this at all?” (He sort of apologized for it later.)

The other thing I remember is about the French post doc from our lab. I had provided pizza and sodas because it’s always wise to bribe your committee, although The Doktah and I think that turkey, box o’ wine, and warm cream is the best thing to serve at a thesis proposal or defense. The food was all on a table down at the front of the room where I was presenting. French Post Doc was late, so in order to avoid disturbing anyone, he came quietly down to the food table, got on his hands and knees, and crawled in front of the table, out of my line of view. The next thing that I saw was French Post Doc’s hand reaching up to the table. He groped for a plate, then came back up for one, two slices of pizza. Sated, he crawled back to the side of the room, and I thought it was all over.

But then the hand came back, groping, and grasping on the tabletop. He’d forgotten to get a napkin.

1 comment:

Princess Blogonoke said...

Oh my god! This is hilarious! I went to an engineering school and I can completely relate to your experiences. That crawling on the floor things sounds like something almost any of the professors at my college would do.

Thank you so much for that hearty laugh. I almost peed my pants.