Monday, October 11, 2010

My (Former) Research Explained: The Project that was Doomed to Failure...

I often talk about Puerto Rico as the most fun summer of my life, but also as the most failed experience. I did have a great time there and I wouldn't change the experience for the world. On the other side though, as far as the research was concerned it was a miserable failure. By the end of the summer I had almost nothing to show besides a miserable understanding of the project I had set out to complete. Now I will tell you all what happened.

I went to Puerto Rico ready to do some great research. I was nervous because I never did anything astronomy related. SUNY Albany had no observatory and it certainly didn't have any astronomy classes outside of an Intro course. I passed that class with the greatest of ease literally. The only knowledge of astronomy I had was the immense reading that I had done as a child. At the time there Wikipedia was in its infancy and I had not heard about it yet, so all my reading came from real encyclopedias and other various books that I had.

When I received an email to join the program I was given a little information about my project. I tried searching the internet, but there was so little information on the web regarding science at the time and almost nothing on the very specific science of my project. So going to Puerto Rico I had no understanding whatsoever of what the hell an OH/IR star was, and that made me nervous.

When I met with my advisor we got off to a shaky start. He criticized me for not having done any background research. While I did agree with him (even at the time), I reasoned that I tried, but I could find no information on the subject with what I had at the time. We then spent like 3 hours discussing the project and what OH/IR stars were. Three hours, that is, of listening to him speak to me with a British accent, very quickly, about a topic that I had never heard of and knew nothing about. It's easy to assume I didn't absorb much and you would be right in that assumption. 

We would probably have at least 30 more very similar discussions that summer. Lots of times he was so intimidating and so condescending during his monologues that it would become very hard to focus on anything he said. Which is probably why we would go over it so many times. In a way I feel like the first conversation tuned me out from the start, but there were definitely lots more that piled on which definitely doomed me (but not in Puerto Rico, I had a great time there, just in terms of the research).

My first week I spent getting acclimated to my tools (I had to learn how to use linux and Mathematica for the first time) and I was given a PhD dissertation to read to understand OH/IR stars. This was the first time I had ever read a scientific paper and the scope of the subject was just way overfilled with jargon that I didn't understand. I even looked up information on the internet but like I said earlier, there were no resources that could explain it simly. To compound the issue, my advisor told me he would be out of town for the next two weeks and that I would be on my own.

He was supposed to be in email contact but he was not. I had a problem like 3 days in and I literally could not proceed until I had this issue worked out. I didn't receive help until the end of my third week. I even asked around and no one could help me because they were unfamiliar with the work (or the tools, which was worse). So in essence I was alone.

I was also told the my advisor would only be in every other day for the rest of the summer. So basically My 10 weeks of work was really only like 5 if I depended on my advisor which I did. The two weeks of travel he had in the beginning hindered me as well. There was also a trip at the end of the summer that was a week long (the students participated in, not the project managers) and so I calculated about 3 weeks of actual work that I could get done with the rest being thrown up to downtime.

In comparison, now I could go a long time without meeting with Koch, but I'm also more self-sufficient now. I understand my project and I know what needs to be done. I can come up with tasks that need to be completed on my own. But in this regard, I had no clue what I was doing and what needed to be done outside of what I was told. I definitely needed hand-holding and I didn't get any. To make matters worse, all the other students would meet with their advisors at least once a day. I had the pleasure of working with the most hands-off professor.

The biggest sabotage was his attitude. I mentioned earlier that he was intimidating and condescending. The more and more we talked it seemed to get worse. Sometimes he would just yell at me asking me why I don't understand what we are talking about. I cried in one meeting, but tried to hold it in. I'm pretty sure he either didn't get it or didn't care.

Later in the summer, we did a project where we got to do an experiment using the telescope. We had a choice between two professors, my advisor and another who did work on pulsars. I chose the pulsar project because I didn't want to work with my advisor again. Some time later the students that worked with my advisor asked me how I could work with him? I asked what had happened and they said he made a student cry. They asked me if I had to deal with this all the time, which I did.

When the summer was ending each student had to give a 15min presentation on what their project was and what they accomplished. My advisor spoke to me about a week before my presentation and asked me what I was going to talk about. I said I would describe my understanding of OH/IR stars because none of the other students had any idea what they were (even though he gave a presentation on them at some point, yes he did as good a job explaining to them as he did to me). He was pretty upset, yelled at me, and told me that was fine sort of brushing me off.

I spent the next week reading everything I could on the subject making sure I understood what I was talking about. I remember just before all this he asked me to explain some things and I tried and instead of correcting me he yelled at me and said he didn't understand why I couldn't grasp this stuff. I then assembled my presentation. I organized in so that most of it I would talk about the background (that no one understood), and then I would spend the last 5 minutes talking about the various trivial tasks that I was given.

The presentation that I gave  is engrained in my head forever. I presented it exactly as I had planned in front of all the students, their advisors, my advisor, and the program advisor Diego (who I talked about previously). At the end it was time for the Q&A session. The first question came from another students advisor and it was of the form, "Did you really have to spend time doing that stuff?" In my head I smiled because they could all see how useless and wasteful it was. My advisor quickly leaped to his own defense, and a slight argument ensued between the two.

The next question I had came from another advisor. He was asking me about the terminology I had used in my talk, and he politely corrected me and I apologized and knew he was right and must have just mixed it up in my head. I specifically remember saying "Oh, you're right, I must have gotten it wrong." To which my advisor mubbled under his breath, "You are completely wrong," in a completely condescending tone. The only people who heard that comment that I know of are myself and Diego. He was pissed off about that when I spoke to him afterward.

As soon as my presentation, my advisor quickly left the room (probably feeling humiliated that my presentation wasn't up to his standards) and I never saw him again.

Looking back now, there was more that I could have done, but I just wouldn't know how. I spent over half the summer in confusion and the other half doing overly simple tasks that didn't accomplish anything. About 80% of the meetings I had with my advisor was spent being yelled at or talked down at.  I would like to think that the summer could have gone better if I tried harder but then I think of all the sabotaging that he did as well. I always wonder if the combination of the two of us just happened to be the perfect mixture for failure, but then I think of the other students interactions with him. All of them told me that only I could have handled what they've experienced for the whole summer.

In the end I suppose it only made me stronger. I definitely have more appreciation for how good of a PI Koch is. He is literally the complete opposite when dealing with people. I'm very productive because of it too.

But that summer in Puerto Rico, it was doomed from the start...

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