Friday, March 16, 2018

Failing with Elegance

In the post below, Alex reflects on a frustrating problem in the lab. In many ways, our failures can be even more valuable than our successes, as they give us an opportunity to learn. Not to mention, as a mentor of mine once said, if you're not pushing into resistance and having problems then you aren't truly doing quality experimental science!

By Alexandre Séguin

Over the past semester, I have been working alongside Paul, Jake and John to set up a cryogenic vacuum chamber to emulate Moon-like conditions. I was assigned to a setup of a solenoid valve which controlled the flow of liquid nitrogen in the chamber. This subsystem includes the valve itself, a driver and a micro-controller. In short, the micro-controller reads a temperature input, determines whether the valve should open or close, and sends a signal to the driver which then activates the valve appropriately. Things did not go as smoothly as expected, and you will now have the opportunity to understand my thought process at the time. At the end, there will be a reflection on the lessons learned and the importance of handling frustrating situations well. Let’s get to work!

Managing the Undergrads

Let's hear it for the hardest working people in academia, our undergraduates! As a fun follow-on to Casey's previous post about the lab food chain, this week Elisabeth discusses the work that she has done with several undergraduates who volunteer with us at PVL to gain valuable experience and perhaps to prepare for future careers in research! From left to right, Alexandra Innanen, Abteen Sanaee, Romina Bahrami and Derek Hayden.

by Elisabeth Smith

Now that I’m in my final term of my Master’s degree, I am a very busy woman – I’m currently doing an astronomy research project for course credit, writing my thesis, and even starting to look around at employment opportunities. However, I still had a few experiments to conduct so I was able to recruit my very own mini-army of undergraduate assistants to help me out. 

Having an undergraduate assistant (or multiple, in my case) is very beneficial for both parties involved. As the graduate student, having an assistant to help perform experiments frees my time to focus on my thesis and other things necessary for the completion of my degree. For the undergraduate student, they gain valuable experience doing hands-on work – something that will doubtless be a boon to their future careers, whether that’s in industry or academia or anything else.

Analyzing the Laboratory Food Chain

I enjoy the food chain above because even though each organism is being eaten by the one above it, the arrows suggest that each organism instead becomes the one above it! That makes it a bit more like the academic food chain that Casey describes below. I must admit, I laughed at Casey's 'rightly so' comment in the 2nd paragraph.

By Casey Moore

During one of our recent meetings, our attention was brought to a 2006 comic by Jorge Cham, creator of the infamous PhD Comics (see the link).

This particular comic strip conveys the “laboratory food chain”, e.g. the fundamental hierarchy within academics. At the top of the food chain is the benevolent hand of god sending the funding program manager disguised as an angel towards a faculty member seated behind a monument of a desk. Said faculty member is being worshiped, rightly so, by a postdoc. In a dingy basement below, we see a PhD student pecking away at their computer and a Master’s student curled up in a ball (probably crying). And in the soil, below the basement dwelling graduate students, we see an earth worm with the title of undergraduate student.

We all poked fun at this comic, even though we have members from the majority of the laboratory food chain in our group (read: no funding program managers nor gods among us). While it is comical, it should be stated that everyone’s experience may vary.

I may have felt like an earth worm during my undergraduate years in the grand scheme of academia, but I attribute that to not partaking in research. I wish I had, but the opportunity never existed for me. The same, I believe, cannot be said for undergraduates at YorkU.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Will it run? (or: Important things to ask yourself when programming)

Last fall, PVL MSc Giang spent a productive term with Raymond Pierrehumbert's group at Oxford. In this post, he reflects on his experience from the perspective of a little distance as he looks forward to summing up his MSc work and assesses PhD opportunities. Above (planetary photojournal image PIA01111), a view of one of Io's forced atmospheric components - sodium - which contrasts with the volcanic emission and condensation of sulfur compounds that Giang modelled.

By Tue Giang Nguyen

While I was interning at the University of Oxford, I was involved in atmospheric modelling projects for exoplanets and grateful for working with prominent scientists in my field. As I returned home from the UK, I had briefly forgotten what Canadian winter was like and was promptly reminded as I stepped outside of the airport. Now that I have returned to York University, it is time to reminisce about the things I learned during my short 3-months stay at Oxford.
The atmospheric model I worked with started by recreating Andrew Ingersoll’s 1985 work on modelling the wind flow on Io. Useful assumptions, some more justified than the others, such as making sure the Ionian atmosphere is hydrostatically bound and neglecting Io’s rotation allowed for a simple one-dimensional model of the shallow wave equation. The gist of the dynamics in the model is that sulfur dioxide, abundant on Io’s surface, would sublimate or evaporate when illuminated by the Sun. The sublimated sulfur dioxide would then flow onto the nightside where it is much colder and the atmosphere would condense back onto the surface. This insight on thin and condensable atmospheres is useful for exoplanet research where tidally locked rocky planets would evaporate or sublimate volatiles on the dayside where they would condense on the colder nightside.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Ice on Mercury and the Moon: Why So Different?

 A comparison of the poles of Mercury and the Moon illustrates similarities and differences that PVL PhD Candidate Jake Kloos explores in this blog post. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory.

By Jake Kloos

The research I am conducting for my PhD pertains to the polar regions of the Moon, which have been active regions of study within the planetary science community for over half a century. For a variety of reasons, interest in the lunar polar regions is centered around the presence of volatile compounds, principally water ice. Ice deposits have been detected within permanently shadowed regions (PSRs), which are regions within impact craters near the poles that are permanently shielded from the Sun. Due to the lack of direct sunlight, temperatures within PSRs are extremely low, enabling them to trap, and potentially preserve, molecules such as water that are wandering about the surface. While ice has been detected within lunar PSRs, the concentrations that have been inferred from remote sensing observations appear to be unexpectedly low, at only a few percent by weight.

The low concentrations of ice found on the Moon is surprising given what we know about ice concentrations on the planet Mercury. Mercury and the Moon share certain key similarities that led many to predict that the two bodies would posses similar amounts of ice: both are considered “airless” bodies and host PSRs near the poles that exist within similar temperature regimes (although Mercury’s PSRs are slightly warmer). Despite this, ice appears to be abundant at the polar regions of Mercury, with inferred concentrations in the range of 50 to 100 % by weight. Moreover, radar data unambiguously show enhancements in nearly all of Mercury’s PSRs, whereas many PSR craters on the Moon lack similar radar enhancements. In fact, some of the lunar PSRs that do show radar enhancements are subject to debate, as some researchers feel that ice may not be the best explanation as to the cause of the enhanced signal. The large discrepancy in ice concentrations on the Moon and Mercury does raise the question: why?

Proposal Writing 101

A few weeks ago, PVL PDF Christina Smith helmed her first major proposal on a $600,000 project. In this post she describes her experience and how it compares to other writing and proposing activities she has led in the past. (Image: "Coffee and a big stack of data", missyleone, flickr)

By Dr. Christina Smith

An very important aspect of academia is proposal writing. These are documents which do pretty much exactly what they say on the tin: they propose research into something. There are many different kinds: proposals to use instruments, proposals for job positions, funding proposals, proposals to become parts of collaborations, proposals to get on missions, and many more. In the past I've written short proposals to try (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully- that's just how it goes) to get time on telescopes and I've written ones to go with fellowship and job applications, but this last week I had my first experience of grant (funding) proposal writing which is an entirely different experience!

When you write a proposal that goes along with a job application or a fellowship application (full or partial funding for your job specifically), the proposal generally focuses on the project, the skills and experiences you have to complete it, and any relevant past work. This includes a general level of background information to set the scene, as not everyone who reviews this proposal will be a specialist in your area. You have to make sure that any person in your general discipline will, by reading your proposal alone, understand what it is you want to do, and almost more importantly, why. In addition to what you want to do and why, you have to prove to the reader that you are definitely capable of carrying out this project that you are proposing. This requires a fair bit of “blowing one's own trumpet” so-to-speak, but in a way that is backed up by evidence. So you have to describe what you've done in the past and also explain why that is relevant to what you're doing now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Getting the Amazing Opportunity to do Outreach with the Ontario Science Center

As part of our work on the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science's ERA program, we've been developing innovative ways to communicate rover operations to the public. Earlier this month we tried out a test of one of our events at the Ontario Science Center. Leading the charge was PVL MSc Charissa Campbell.

by Charissa Campbell

In my opinion, science outreach is one of the most important aspects of any public program. You get to teach people of all ages and can even encourage them to pursue science as a career. So, when our research group first discussed putting together an outreach program for high school students that would be like mission operations for a Martian rover, I was immediately on-board. Some of us are currently members of Curiosity’s mission operations team (including myself) so it was great to take that knowledge and adapt it. I’ve personally engaged in outreach programs in the past and still do on a regular basis with my young siblings, so I was excited to also be a part of this, especially in more of a leadership role. 

If you are curious about our May 2017 outreach program, you can check out Brittney’s great blog post: This was only the first of two successful runs in 2017 with varying levels of complexity. We knew changes had to be made from the first run, so we decided to broaden the roles and meetings to ensure participants didn’t get lost in the complexity. This did not, however, fix all of the issues from the first run.  Instead, we now had the opposite problem: the roles had become too broad. In the end, we identified the major problems with the program and made edits averaging the first and second run. Now in 2018, we have successfully completed a third run with volunteers at the Ontario Science Centre.