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2006 SPS National Interns
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Patricia Engel
Patricia Engel
University of Notre Dame, IN

Internship: NIST (National Institute of Standards & Technology)
Online Journal
Week of August 11, 2006 Week of July 21, 2006 Week of June 16, 2006
Week of August 4, 2006 Week of July 14, 2006 Week of June 9, 2006
Week of July 28, 2006 Week of July 7, 2006 Week of June 2, 2006
Where are they now?

June 1, 2007
It's hard to believe that I've been in grad school for a year! MIT has kept me busy and fascinated! I have been enjoying my classes in fluid mechanics, ocean circulation theory, waves, time series analysis and inverse problems, observations of the ocean's large scale physical properties, and numerical modeling of climate dynamics. And there has been a constant series of lectures and seminars both at MIT and at WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute). There are far more interesting talks than I can possibly go to, especially now as the end of the semester approaches.

I am looking forward to summer. I will spend June on the Scripps Research Vessel Melville estimating flow over sills around the Philippines and helping wherever needed on an exploratory cruise to study the stratification and circulation of that region.

I am also looking forward to spending July and August in the lab at WHOI. We are currently looking at the impact of turbulence and buoyancy in driving a circulation in a small tank (relevant to the meridional overturning). Tomorrow I fly to the Philippines! It should be a great adventure and lend some insight into how observational data is collected.

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Week of August 11, 2006
Another amazing week. Two days of flying, two days at Stanford. The EMSI meeting was great. A very small gathering, maybe 40 people. Oral presentations by grad students and post docs the first day, followed by a tiny evening poster session (approx. 16 posters) by undergrads and grad students. The second day focused on education and outreach: workshops for local teachers and journalists. It was neat to be part of the cross pollination and sharing of ideas during the breakout sessions where the PIs discussed the direction of the research for the next year. What a neat system!

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Week of August 4, 2006
This week has been topsy turvey. The return to ACP for practice and presentations on Monday and Tuesday was a nice symmetric balance to the beginning of the summer. My presentation went well. I was the fourth speaker and I realized that my nervousness was illogical. There I was, soon to be in front of all those people, people who were yearning to hear what I had to say. People who were interested in learning, despite that they were not chemists or theorists... And I wanted to share my experience, my results. Realizing this helped a little with nerves, but perhaps there is something innately human that stresses us out about being the center of the attention of a large group. But then again, there are some people who love it.

After each presentation, the advisor of the intern was invited to say a few words. It was a really neat opportunity for advisers to both give a larger picture of their own organizations (ie why NIST is involved in such research) and to publicly affirm their students and express their appreciation for the intern program. Cynthia spoke for me, even though she was not really my advisor, but the only one there who could speak (Orkid overslept and Anne Chaka was in Boulder, CO). Amazing. I hope that I will be able to speak so thoughtfully with such little warning when I am a postdoc.

Wednesday morning breakfast with Liz was a great opportunity to review the summer, reflect, and give feedback. It was helpful to remember and express, to contribute to the planning and strategizing for program growth (publicizing...). After saying bye to Jackie, Jeff, and Liz, we spent a wonderful afternoon together, packing, talking, returning library books and collecting next year's intern care package (all the pots and pans, coffee maker, blender, water filters, etc...).

Thursday was a very difficult day with many challenges, not the least of which was saying goodbye to all of the other interns (beginning with Alex at 5:30am, then the others when I left for work, knowing they'd be gone when I returned...). It's amazing how much we've become an odd sort of family.

Another challenge of the day: realizing a significant selection of my results are inadequate and why. Herculean team work with Orkid and Cynthia to prepare a draft of my EMSI poster by that evening. Struggle with the ethics of presenting a work, as first author, with major contributions of the second and third authors. What does it mean to be the first of several authors? In contrast to assigned classwork and student presentations (where previously I was sole author and presenter of work 100% self generated, with the input and direction of mentors of course), I realized that most of my future work will be collaborative.

Another lesson: (perhaps underrated, but necessary) sufficient sleep, calories, and emotional balance are required for such tough days. It is important to know oneself, take care of basic needs, and set limits.

Friday: My last full day at NIST.
Suman brought brownies to celebrate Chris and my last day. A revision of the poster with comments from Anne and a tour of the Pentagon with the SURF students. It was interesting to see such a military presence, to see the history displayed in the corridors, the solidarity (shown in quilts) for the family and coworkers of those who died on Sept 11th 2001. Also, I enjoyed the anecdote that during the Cold War, the Russians targeted the building in the middle of the courtyard, convinced by the amount of foot traffic that it was a secret bunker. It is now called the ground zero hot dog stand.

I stayed with Cynthia at NIST working on and printing the poster until 9pm. The guard was not happy when we left. Apparently, staying after hours without an escort is trespassing and could lead to an arrest. Orkid left at 7pm to avoid the stricter regulations applied to international staff.

Saturday: I packed for Stanford, inventoried and packed the intern care package, and took the unopened left over food and canned goods to Miriam's Kitchen (a local food pantry, 24th and G). It is odd living on a ghost floor. Even the two rooms of Alaska people left.

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Week of July 28, 2006
Monday through Wednesday were spent finishing last calculations and working on my presentation. Dramatically, pqs determined this was the best time for its demise, and Kacey, Orkid and I lost all access to our files.

A success: Anne Chaka had several meetings with Orkid, Cynthia, and Emily to work on their presentations and I happened to be in the hallway when she was leaving. She invited me to update her on my progress while walking her to her next meeting. What a good strategy: both efficient and productive.

Thursday Jeff hosted us for a tour of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. His advisor, Dr. Mark Shappirio, introduced us to the larger picture of Jeff's research and NASA's dual research efforts toward both basic science and engineering. It was refreshing to talk of vacuum chambers and pumps again.

Friday was Kacey's last day. When I finally got to work (a 2.5 hr commute due to technical difficulties with credit cards, amounts of change, machines that gobble cash, and a walk to Farrugut North, where the machines were working), we had a party to celebrate Kacey's last day. Everyone enjoyed the brownies and lemon-lime bars we brought. A smaller group took us out to Dim Sum.

My second adventure on Friday was a visit to NSF. It was neat to see another central location which significantly impacts the path of US science. A few minutes early, I enjoyed the stillness and space within the building itself. After arranging it about a month ago, I have been looking forward to meeting Dr. Jill Karsten, the Program Director for Geosciences Diversity and Education, formerly of Education and Outreach for AGU (in which capacity I exchanged some emails over the AGU Fall meeting last December). Jill Karsten introduced me to Lara Hutto, a former UH Manoa grad student and WHOI technician who now is a science assistant at NSF. It was great to hear their stories and advice.

After our meeting, Lara Hutto invited me to a gathering of the NSF science assistants with Kathie Olsen, Deputy Director of NSF. She has a very exciting past and a very dramatic, energetic and passionate way of presenting herself. I am so glad that the four month wait to be fit into her busy schedule coincided with my visit! I also enjoyed learning about the science assistants as we went around the table introducing ourselves, what area of research and school we're from, in addition to how they found out about the science assistant program. The whole experience visiting NSF was phenomenal and inspirational. I might like to work there someday.

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Week of July 21, 2006
This week passed rapidly. Monday we hosted the AIP-NIST tour. There was so much to share (semiconductor labs, scientific visualization, the Newton Tree, the nanofab lab/clean room, and the Hall of Standards: which contains the meter, the kilogram, the mol, in addition to the standard peanut butter, baking chocolate, spinach, egg powder, milk, and multivitamins ). Though, for future reference, a four hour tour is too long, especially if it takes your guests over an hour to commute.

In addition to the second tour of the week (a tour of the Capitol set up through the Senator of Pennsylvania), this week was particularly exciting in that I began to analyze my data and weave together the story I will tell. It is amazing how exciting it is to begin to see a story emerge from the scattered pages of my lab notebook.

I spent the weekend rereading papers and consolidating experimental results for comparison to my theoretical values. An interesting reflection: When I read the papers in the beginning of the summer, I found myself passing through the words without absorbing much. I had no context or familiarity upon which to determine which details were important. Rereading these papers, I noticed things which were very important to know before I began (such as if the problem I hoped to address needed to be addressed, what had already been done, and therefore, what I might contribute given the methods at my disposal). This was a lesson in the value of literature.

As a side note, I really appreciated the accessibility of e-journals, particularly the resources of three libraries (Notre Dame, NIST, and MIT).

PS: Anne Deml is amazing at organizing and motivating participation in social events (ie group trip to the public pool and a photo scavenger hunt).

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Week of July 14, 2006

A little over half of the planned calculations are finished. The first half took two weeks, with delays and lengthening runs (triple and quadruple zeta calculations run much longer than double). Hopefully, the second half will run more smoothly. Meanwhile, the analysis continues and presentation building begins. Orkid has encouraged me to create a draft presentation to give her this coming Thursday.

I have been observing and learning from the post-doc perspective of advisor-student relationships. One strategy for getting feedback on a paper draft from an extremely busy advisor is to give the advisor only the first and last sentences of every paragraph for review (with their consent). This shortens the document to a short read increasing the probability of a quick return. Revisions can be made, then the entire draft discussed. This strategy is in the experimental stage now, so I will wait to see how it works. I am certain that it also depends on the preferences and style of the advisor.

It will be interesting to see how collaborating on a paper works. Orkid has mentioned that she d like me to write a paper on the work we've done this summer. It's a great opportunity, though somewhat intimidating.

A small lesson in sharing: Many people in this group use an external cluster of computers to run programs and save data. However, the memory of this cluster is almost at its max. Earlier this week, it reached the max and so any programs that were running, kept running, but could not save the results. Time to delete or move files. Then, to restart any jobs that finished before there was space to save the final calculations. Somewhat frustrating. There is probably a more efficient system or policy.


  • One important task: This week we (the NIST-SPS interns) set up what looks to be an amazing tour for Monday. This meant exploring, talking to personnel in a variety of fascinating research areas, and discovering locations of standardized peanut-butter, chocolate, spinach, multi-vitamins etc.
  • Surprise: I met Conrad DeWitte, a Sigma Pi Sigma member, at Church and he recognized my picture from the newsletter! He may attend the final presentation. It was impressive to see a Sigma Pi Sigma member expressing the values of service and leadership.
  • Calendar: The next few weeks promise to be extra busy. We have four tours planned! NIST and NASA, and the Capitol and White House. In addition, practice and formal presentations, an end of summer report, a poster for the EMSI conference at Stanford (which I may or may not be going to in three weeks!), and the beginnings of a draft for a paper.
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Week of July 7, 2006

With four weeks until the final SPS presentation and five until a poster session at the EMSI Stanford meeting, the pressure was on when I returned this week. Even though it was a short week (due to Independence Day), the progress made amazed me. In the past four days I finished almost 1/3 of the planned calculations (theoretical experiments, if you will)! I was very excited when we reached the 1/6th milestone and were able to analyze some of our results. It is energizing to begin to see the story unfolding.

Thoughts on Theory:
I spent much of this week setting up and running calculations. I am very glad we began with the short calculations, which allowed me to continue preparations for future calculations while waiting for the current ones to finish. It is an interesting sensation letting the computer run calculations. It is strange to not be involved in each step (as in hand written or Mathematical problem sets) but to let it go for hours (and I've heard, weeks or months). I suppose this low maintenance is a sign of a well-designed program and the current limitations of computer calculation speed.

-There is an early shuttle from the Shady Grove metro station to NIST at 6:45am (the next at 8:15am). However, when I take this shuttle, I find I arrive two hours before anyone else and may not be able to get into my office (no key), am exhausted by 3pm, and will stay until 5pm anyway. I still find it a valuable option for those days we leave early for an SPS picnic or tour, and may find it extremely valuable as the number of days left dwindles.

-There are people at NIST who arrange conferences and large tours (Marie Bravo and Kathy Kilmer). And these ladies would be great resources for contacts in the different divisions. However, two things: first, our group is small (they are used to hundreds) and second, there is a form that requires 4 weeks notice. Our tour is in about one week (two when we inquired). So instead we've been arranging our own tour and soliciting advice from the staff in our divisions. Alex hit the jackpot with John Suehle in Semiconductor Electronics. We have enthusiastically accepted Dr. Suehle's offer to start the tour with an overview of NIST and then take us through/around the nanofabrication lab (a clean room with glass walls).

-I have recently discovered an organization called CORE, the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education. Henry Hope, the Education Coordinator, send out a request for Science Bowl questions. Idealistically, this sounds like a neat opportunity. Great for building experiences and in the future it will be nice to know that scientists, grad students, and professors may make a little extra money by writing questions for such contests, or, Kacey tells me, for text books.

Note: There is a nice public library off of Metro Center, Martin Luther King Jr.

Note 2: We forgot to try this: wearing polarizing glasses to watch the 4th fireworks display from the roof of our dorm (or the mall).

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Week of June 16, 2006

Thoughts on Theory and Life in the Group and in the sweat-shop :

  • In experimental work, equipment breaks, or gets delayed in shipping, or temperamentally stops working, yet I can tinker with it (except when parts are in the mail). In Theory, when the super computer is down, what do I do? Every other day this week, the computer cluster stops working. Then I switch to a program locally on my computer and another part of the project. But that program also began to fail. I ran jobs Monday and Tuesday that would go for 3 hours or 9 and then the connection would be lost and I'd start over. On Wed, we installed a new version and updated the license. Since then, there have been no problems. Though, that left me with two days to sit and read up on the binding properties of Arsenic and basic inorganic chemistry. Looking back, I realize I could have been preparing files for the next run, ready to go as soon as the previous job cleared or the super computer became available again.
  • In the Group: I've learned that in this group the postdocs are more than happy to help and direct. I'm told that in many groups the postdocs and senior grad students handle the day-to-day mentoring of the newest members of the group. This is an adjustment from my previous experiences in which I worked closely with the group leader for the first few weeks, then more independently. It's neat to have four advisors. There is always someone to go to and there are different things to learn from discussions with the whole group.
  • In the sweat-shop (the office I share with 5 postdocs from another group): we have been under threat of losing access to our computers, because one of the postdocs (who works elsewhere during the majority of the time) needed to complete mandatory paperwork for NIST. His failure to do so would have resulted in the turning off of access to his computer. However, this office used to be a lab, so there is only one jack for this half of the room. Therefore, turning off his computer would disconnect mine and those of three others. The others emailed and called him. He came in today. What a relief!

Other than this, working in the sweat-shop has not been bad. Everyone is quiet in general, and friendly, and occasionally I have the opportunity to observe an advisor-postdoc meeting.

Project Progress:

Under the guidance of Dr. Cynthia Lo, I've begun to explore the structure of As(III) on an Al2O3 surface using density functional calculations. These calculations and those for As(V) will show changes in the geometry caused by additional binding with hydroxide groups.

Paralleling these calculations, under the guidance of Dr. Orkid Coskuner, I have begun to use quantum mechanical calculations to study the structures and Gibbs free energies of several aqueous arsenic molecules in order to determine if there is a preference for As(III) or As(V). Note: A little vagueness is intentional after a discussion of the dangers of posting specific details of my project online months before it may become part of another s paper. There is a fine line between caution and paranoia, and another between full disclosure, the sharing of ideas and research, and waiting until after publication to do so. I have yet to completely sort through this issue.

We all had a very good talk yesterday which further clarified my project, and has allowed me to compose a detailed to do list such that when I return from my two week orientation with MIT-WHOI I may jump back in where I left off. Cynthia has even offered to run some of the structures I've made while I'm away!


New interesting people met under the lunch tree:

  • A NIST researcher who now studies nuclear medicine but who has a degree in chemical oceanography.
  • A NIST researcher who has a B.S. in physics and now studies finger printing.

Other adventures of the week:

  • SURF Seminar on clocks and time: What Time is it Anyway?: Clocks, Timescales, and Atomic Fountains given by Dr. Christopher Ekstrom , Clock Development Res. Group, U.S. Naval Observatory
  • An NRC (National Research Council) Postdoc lunch meeting. Our group doubled the population in support of Emily s presentation (Dr. Emily Javis). After the presentation we talked about her experience on Capitol Hill with an AAAS Fellowship (American Association for the Advancement of Science) as a science advisor. She worked on a whole range of topics and bills. Such programs are open to young PhDs, but she suggests using the experience as a sabbatical (in order to gain a larger/different perspective), because it is only a one year position (which means that during the first few months of the experience, one also must be looking for a position for the next year, in contrast to someone who has a job to return to ). One of the other postdocs shared that there is a similar program in diplomacy and that NIST has a program to loan researchers out to other parts of the government for a few years before returning.
  • NIST Safety Day 2006 Fire extinguisher training, hands on
  • a hair cut by Katherine (11.5 inches to Locks of Love)

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Week of June 9, 2006
The week started with Orientation at the ACP (American Center for Physics), headquarters of AIP (American Institute of Physics). It was fascinating to meet the people who run APS and AAPT, who write and design Physics Today, who collect and distribute statistics about the field, who manage government relations, and organize career fairs and job boards. It s amazing that one building holds all that. It was also incredible that everyone was so expressively happy to see us, the interns, as we explored the floors, introducing ourselves.

At NIST: I have spent much of this week reading. Reviewing the literature and the first several chapters of Cotton and Wilkinson s Advanced Inorganic Chemistry and Szabo and Ostlund's Modern Quantum Chemistry. It was then quite exciting to modify and optimize a molecular model, and to come in the next day and analyze the optimized structure. Perhaps it is the experimental training, but I feel much more productive and progressive now that I have my first data set. The second optimization is running. It is interesting, to set up an experiment and let it run for 9 hours. The data collection then takes place in the analysis, meanwhile, there is time for more reading and brainstorming and preparation of the next run.

Next to orientation, the highlight of my week was the CNSF (Coalition for National Science Funding) exhibition and reception in Rayburn Hall (one of the Capitol buildings). This event was meant to motivate allocation of federal funding to NSF. As a result, it was a fascinating crush of people. For the first hour I simply talked to one person after another. An intern working for the senator of Indiana, a lobbyist intern with the AAU (Association of American Universities), legislative assistants and staff who can almost quote response letters I've received, reporters, directors and heads of mathematical associations, of social science associations, Dr. Jack Hess of the Geological Society of America (who studied Physics as an undergrad) and who gave me his card, the representatives at the NCUR booth giving out bottled tornados, Jon Corsiglia from the Joint Oceanographic Institute, etc. It was also great to be coached by Dr. Jack Hehn, Director of Education at AIP, in where to stand and wait patiently in such situations in order to meet those most in demand (ie Senators, Representatives, and the head of NSF).

SURF Seminar of the week: Dr. Timothy Foecke spoke on modeling and preserving shipwrecks, including the Titanic, Arizona, Huntley, Monitor, and Ellis Island Ferry. Fascinating considerations include: trapped buoyant oil which may explode when the structure weakens (Arizona), the physics behind the accelerated rusting resulting from contact of two different materials (for example, the Titanic is falling apart as the bolts rust through their holes), the gulf stream sand blasting off growths (Monitor), large chunks of non-uniform cast iron falling off the sides of the Huntley, and respect for the dead (Arizona untouched out of respect).

Next week I look forward to further explorations of arsenic structures and many more, fascinating conversations.

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Week of June 2, 2006

According to the World Health Organization, 45-57 million people in Bangladesh and 13 million people in the US (not to mention significant populations in Argentina, Australia, Chile, China, Hungary, India, Mexico, Peru, and Thailand) are exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic in their groundwater. Long-term exposure through drinking water leads to cancers of the skin, lungs, urinary tract, bladder, and kidneys, in addition to higher risks for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and reproductive difficulties (World Health Organization Fact sheet 210).

This summer I am working with Dr. Anne Chaka in the Computational Chemistry Group at NIST using theoretical methods to study the structure of arsenic both in aqueous solution and bound to rock and soil bulk structures. These investigations will lead to an understanding of the conditions for which inorganic arsenic compounds are available in drinking water. As a result of this study, and its parent project, EMSI (Environmental Molecular Science Institute), it may be possible to identify locations in which to dig wells in order to find safer drinking water, thus avoiding significant health problems for millions of people.

Thus motivated, why am I, a physicist who has not taken a chemistry course in three years, involved? I have my doubts. But I asked Anne Chaka and she responded: Physicists can think and ask the right questions. That leaves me with a lot of introductory inorganic and modern quantum chemistry reading to catch up on, and incredibly friendly and generous postdocs and scientists lending out texts and fielding questions.

My Goals for the summer:

  • Gain experience in theoretical research
  • Make a contribution to the Group and Field
  • Learn about the operation of science at the national level, working in a federal research facility, and strategies for success

I also look forward to hearing about the experiences of the other interns in Education, Outreach, and Policy, as well as at NASA, AAS, and the Physics division at NIST. And in general, I look forward to listening to countless stories of experience and adventures that lead and apply to current life and science situations.

That said, one highlight of the week was attending the first SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) seminar. Dr. S. Shyam Sunder of NIST s Building and Fire Research Laboratory spoke about the investigation of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9-11-01. It was fascinating to learn about forensic building modeling (in places to the order of a few inches), in addition to how and why the buildings were built as they were, sky lobbies and stacked elevators, that the buildings could have withstood the oscillations induced by the impact of the airplanes, how the fire and building design led to the collapse, and that escape stairways are only built to evacuate one floor at a time (fires usually contained per floor). As a result, I plan to never live or work above the 20th story (a 20 min descent in an emergency at the rate of 1 min per floor, as compared to 60 floors, or 100 ).

Everyday novelties: Wild deer sighted twice a day. 7-day fast passes on the metro. Conversations on the NIST employee shuttle to the Shady Grove Metro Station. Wild flowers in the middle of the road. Strawberries under the Newton Tree (descended from the apple tree which inspired Newton s theory of gravitation). The glory of dish soap, pots and pans, and an ironing board after 13+ hours of air travel and 3 days of work. Identical buildings. An official Department of Commerce ID badge. The energetic arrival of roommates and neighbors after 5 days of a very empty dorm floor.

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