Monday, April 9, 2018

“I’m not a student... not yet a professor”: but what actually IS a post-doc?

Usually I go with Grey's Anatomy references to explain academic ranks, hence the photo above, showing the season 1 cast. An intern (in Canada a 1st year resident - light blue above) is a bit like a PhD student just embarking on their research career, a resident is like a postdoc (light blue + lab coat) working with significant autonomy, each of whom works under an attending physician (dark blue above) who in turn takes their cues from the department chair (dark blue + lab coat). Here Christina takes a different tack.

By Dr. Christina Smith

Bonus points for anyone who gets the early 2000s song reference in the title there.

So this is a question I come across quite often – and I know other post-docs do too. When asked what I do for a living, I’ll often start with “I’m a researcher” for simplicity, but in reality I’m a “post-doctoral fellow” or even more confusingly, a “post-doctoral visitor”. There are a number of other names for people who do similar jobs to me, but they all tend to have the same word (or hyphenated word, but let’s not get onto the postdoctoral vs post-doctoral debate) at the beginning of the title, so often we just call ourselves “post-docs”.

But that doesn’t really answer the question: what is a post-doc?

Friday, March 30, 2018

2000 Sols on Mars: What Goes Into Documenting Another World?

The second in our two-part series on Curiosity's 2000th Sol on Mars. In this article Brittney takes a look at the public reaction to the day and reflects on choosing that perfect image to commemorate the occasion, in this case from an observation she herself designed, planned and ran on Mars! What goes into producing that top line image? Read on to find out. You can read the first article, written by Charissa Campbell and talking about operations, by clicking on this link.

By Brittney Cooper

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as Curiosity Rover, celebrated its historic 2000th sol on Mars last week. 2000 Martian days equates to roughly 3 Martian years, which has allowed the rover a great deal of time to traverse Gale Crater. Along the way, the science team has used MSL to analyze Mars’ geology, all the while monitoring the atmosphere and its processes as the seasons change each year.
To celebrate this historic occasion, the BBC published an article featuring a collection of images captured by the rover throughout its journey. It turned out that a triptych of images taken as part of an observation I proposed were selected to be included in the article. It was really cool to see them alongside others in such a large outlet. An unexpected (but positive) result of those images being published came in the form of discussions with friends and family about what my actual role was in the capture of those images.

Sol 2000: A day in the life of a Martian Explorer

This week we've got a double bill here at PVL. In dueling articles, two of our Mars Science Laboratory Collaborators, Brittney Cooper (at left in the image above) and Charissa Campbell (at center) reflect on Curiosity's 2000th martian day (or sol) on Mars. The third person pictured above is Christina Smith, PVL Postdoctoral fellow and fellow MSL Collaborator and ESTLK. Charissa kicks us off with a description of the day and is followed up by Brittney's article about how that beautiful image in the newspaper gets produced.

by Charissa Campbell

As of March 22, Curiosity celebrated her 2000th day on Mars. I was lucky enough to be on operations during this monumental moment as some members of our research group are a part of the Environmental (ENV) Science Theme Group (STG) for Curiosity. This STG is responsible for the environmental side of operations, which includes advocating and planning observations beneficial to our research such as atmospheric movies. The official name for our role is the Environmental Science Theme Lead and Keeper of the Plan, or in a much manageable form, ESTLK.

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.