Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reflecting on a PhD Beginning

It's been two weeks since I last wrote for my blog and the fact that I am doing it now means one thing- finals are over!  Now that I have completed finals, I can officially call my first semester as a PhD student complete!  This post is mostly a summary of the classes and research progress I made in my first semester, plus some musings about the year as a whole.  I wrote it for myself as a way of providing perspective on what I have accomplished, as a benchmark to record my progress, to encourage myself for the work ahead, and as a preemptive New Year's reflection.  I decided to share it publicly since a few of you may be interested in a progress update and to encourage you all to pursue reflection on your own accomplishments.

These past couple of weeks have been packed with two major projects, two comprehensive finals, and quite a bit of research.  This semester I completed two classes- Geochemistry and Mathematical Modeling.  Geochemistry was largely review of the basics I learned as an undergrad. and reinforcement and further development of topics that I picked up and taught myself while working on my senior research project.  The class was fairly straightforward and clearly applicable to my area of study without any significant stretch of the imagination.  Math Modeling, however, was a totally different challenge.  It focused on the use of partial differential equations and modeling to examine everything from diffusion to advection to stress and strain and is one of two courses required for all geology PhD students at BU.  For a geochemistry student who had never opened Matlab (a computer program that uses basic coding and commands for math computation and modeling), never had a course in differential equations, and had not been in an advanced math course since senior year of high school, the whole idea was daunting.  If you had told me as an undergrad that my first semester in graduate school I would be required to take a course that covered these topics and that I would successfully produce a one-dimensional model that shows diffusion of Mn in garnet both analytically and numerically as my final project, I would have told you that you were crazy. As I went through the class it was often difficult to see any progress being made amid struggles to follow the lectures and to find any possible application of the class topics to my research area.  But now that the class is done, it is much easier to look back through the struggle and to appreciate how my thinking and skill sets have changed, how I have gained a new appreciation of diffusion and its relevance to the mineral analysis that I already love, and even how new topics that I was exposed to during this class could benefit my research in the future.  This is a large part of the reason that I pursued graduate work in the first place and it has been exciting to be able to see personal growth when I picked up a paper that went over my head six months ago that I can now understand or when I was able to correct a typo in Fortran code used in modeling that other scientists missed.
"All things good to know are difficult to learn."- Greek Proverb    

Besides classes, my other major task has been to begin the research which will eventually become my dissertation.  I've already started to share some of the research tasks that I have worked on this semester with you through my blog, and there are many others that I have been learning but haven't had time to share yet.  I have plenty of material for future science blog posts!  I am now one chemistry and one analytic step away from generating my first set of detrital garnet analyses.  I have done sample preparation on material from three different locations total, which will allow me to push forward their chemistry in coming months.  I have started a test that will be used to directly compare and analyze the accuracy of the ages produced by detrital garnet geochronology to the ages generated by the lab's currently accepted techniques for dating garnet from metamorphic rocks.  Not bad for 3.5 months and having to learn all the techniques from scratch, although I think it is the nature of the scientist to always wish for more progress. :-)

Exactly one year ago, I was a senior undergraduate student at a small private school in the Midwest.  I was submitting my finalized applications to graduate schools across the country, preparing to student teach during the final semester of undergrad. (Spring of 2011) and knew big changes were coming in my life.  Since then I completed one semester of full-time teaching experience in a rural high school, defended my senior thesis, graduated at the top of my class, chose a graduate program, went abroad for the first time to complete fieldwork in Scotland, moved across the country to Boston, and I have now completed a full semester as a PhD graduate student.  It constantly amazes me how much can happen in a year, and I can only imagine what this coming year is going to bring! (Here's hoping the coming year brings my name as a coauthor on a peer-reviewed, published paper!)

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