Saving a Dress from Myself

Some months ago I made a dress to celebrate passing orals (yay! I’m a PhD candidate.). It didn’t turn out as planned (boo!). Most of the times patterns just work for me, so I haven’t done many alteration. I learned some important lessons.

1.Vintage patterns patterns are cut for a different culture.

Going into the project, I was hyper aware that pattern sizes change over the years
and the 1968 pattern (Simplicity 7757)  I was using might not use standard sizing. However, since the pattern I used was printed the year everything changed, it actually uses modern sizing (as “NEW Sizing” printed on the front might suggest). Despite using modern measurements, the dress hung like a tent yet clung in the wrong places. This was not what was depicted on the pattern envelope. The idea of what looks good has changed. What looks good varies by body type. The vintage advertisement for the pink dress suggests that this shape was “in” during the sixties. Also, this is why patterns have photos on the front.

2. If you take a dress in at the side, you will have to recut the sleeves  unless they were huge to begin with.

I really loved this fabric, so I decided to do dress surgery, dresurgery, dresurgé? I took about three inches off either side of the bust. But I didn’t recut the sleeves since I don’t like making irreversible decisions (more on that later). I wish future me had warned me somehow.

Dear past self,

I can hear what you’re saying, “Oh, I have skinny arms, I can fit my arms through that tiny hole. I’ll just taper the sleeves so the top is smaller than the bottom.” That is a bad idea. This has only ever worked for you once and that was on a sleeveless shirt. Your upper arms will need that room to rotate forward or the dress will probably stretch funny. And now the dress is stuck like that forever because it’s not quite annoying enough to rip the sleeves off again. And it’s all your fault.

3. Gores added to the side of the dress won’t look the way you think they will.

img_2985After some excruciating trial and error adding darts to the back
to suggest I had a waist, as well as taking the dress in at the side, my end product looked a lot like what was on the pattern envelope. But while it looked fine from the front, it bunched weirdly in the stomach, didn’t quite fit in back, and I didn’t have enough skirt to run. The dress was sabotaging my chances in the coming zombie apocalypse.

I decided to add some gores to the dress. The tutorials I read warned me that adding fabric onto the sides would only add volume to the sides. Instead, I was supposed to slash several places around the dress and add the fabric there. I decided to ignore this for several reasons

  • I did not hate this dress and did not want to ruin it in case my changes were worse than the original.
  • The fabric I was adding matched the direction of the
    extant grain, and I was only adding enough fabric to make the bottom of the dress just as wide as a dress I already had. That dress didn’t have problems
  • Maybe the tutorials were meant for making a-line skirts. This
    dress had the grain of the fabric along center front.
  • I couldn’t find any pictures of the results of this mistake.

img_2999It turns out that only adding gores at the side of a skirt is generally a BAD IDEA. The fabric folds along the seam lines so it doesn’t flare out the way it would have if you had originally cut the skirt wider. Instead, the skirt hangs like a much narrower skirt, but gives you the leg room of a larger skirt. This looked fine for the style I ended up with, but gores in the front and back would have been cooler.

I added some darts in the front and augmented the ones in the back, and ended up with something I will actually wear which looks nothing like the dress I started out with.


Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

Spring Semester Summary ’13

I have been told many times in many ways that sleep is one of the most important tasks. I’ve written about how important it is many times. This past semester I neglected it and became a zombie. That wasn’t good. Beyond that fundamental lesson, I also re-learned some other things in the past few months.

  • Scientific papers are really interesting. But only if you have already read about three on the same subject and just need to skim the introduction. By that point, you know the jargon and can actually focus on the cool discovery. Before that point…it’s a nightmare.
  • Because it is a nightmare to read scientific papers, you should not procrastinate. Indeed, simply skimming the paper is better than doing it “right”, because that way you might pick up some of the jargon. Obviously, however, procrastinators do not learn from nagging (or teacher’s warnings would yield results) nor do they learn by example (or procrastinators would not remain procrastinators), but maybe they learn from other people’s examples. Allow me to mention the twelve-hour take-home test and the night-before presentation of this past semester and the five-hour ODE homework and the two-day massive essay of the semester before as well as the people who waited until the end of the last semester of senior year to write their thesis.
  • Most importantly, try to have fun with it. Because if someone is just in a career for the money/prestige, it won’t pay nearly enough for the headache. And if being in school isn’t somehow a means to an end, where that end is either a dream job (which you will enjoy, and which will use the things you are learning now, no?) or enjoyment of the new found knowledge, then why are you even in school?
  • No matter how many times I learn these things, I always ignore them and end up a frustrated sleep-deprived mess. My professors do their utmost to reassure me that it’s never as bad as you think it is. Or perhaps it is, but freaking out never helped anyone.

I’ll admit that wasn’t a summary so much as a list of un-learned lessons, but I’m sort of trying to learn them. This past semester I took Physical Biochemistry, Instrumental Analysis, Chemical Thermodynamics and World History I. The semester before was actually a bit harder and involved Advanced Organic Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics, and Ordinary Differential Equations. I will now compare my classes in the fall and spring semesters in excruciating detail.

  1. Advanced Organic Chemistry was meant to be a laid-back sort of class. We could have notes in the tests, but there was a great deal we had to figure out on our own using “chemical logic”. I don’t feel that I was very good at it. Physical Biochemistry was similar, although there were a lot of papers out there we could look up to figure out why proteins fold the way they do. Both also introduced a lot of biology which I had been avoiding since high school. Surprisingly, however, that was really helpful, making both classes really interesting. And from the sound of my Physical Biochemistry teacher’s dark murmurings, I’m going to need to know biology as well as math, physics, and chemistry to do drug delivery research. Maybe I’ll actually be a halfway decent researcher.
  2. Analytical Chemistry was actually taught by one of the most laid-back teachers I have ever met. He flew through the material, and always seemed to assume that we were a great deal smarter than we actually were, so I was exposed to a great many things, but without the depth I would have liked. Instrumental Analysis was like a second semester of analytical chemistry, only it was taught by one of the more detail-oriented professors in the department (who is also the Physical Biochemistry instructor) so we got a focused description of certain aspects of electronics and lasers and spectrometry, it was rather an interesting contrast, especially as the laid-back analytical professor taught the lab in a sort of Socratic-independent-experimental manner. I discovered that I really am rather interested in electron transitions, but I almost felt it should have been much harder. Perhaps that is where independent study comes in. (My Structure and Bonding professor for Fall ’13/ new research PI heard me say this, cackled with delight and gave me the textbook he will be using so I can study over the summer.)
  3. Quantum Mechanics and Chemical Thermodynamics were both taught by my original PI, but they were very different. Quantum exposed me to the math of electron transitions before I actually knew what it was for (but was rather cool in a confusing sort of way). Thermodynamics was very specific about what the math was used for, but it also became evident to me that we were looking at very simplified systems. Quantum was also simplified. The mind boggles.
  4. ODE and History present an interesting contrast. ODE was a pain in the neck. I am positive that it was simplified to fit into one semester, but it was also amazingly awesome and interesting. The professor, who was a good lecturer, made the homework a pain in the neck by using Web-assign, which gives no partial credit whatsoever. And he gave homework for which we were not allowed to use mathematica or maple. For example, we had undetermined coefficients problems involving the third derivative of two or three sets of the cosine and sine of expressions of things like (2x +4)3x. Each time you take the derivative of a term like that, you get an additional term [For cos(2x^2+12x), you get -(4x+12){sin(2x^2+12x)}.] so if you had five terms originally, and derive three times, you get 5*2^3=40 terms if you have not messed up somewhere. Anyway, it was a pain. History, on the other hand was taught by a sweet lady who told stories, always let us out fifteen minutes early, and gave multiple-choice tests. I wish I could have heard more of her stories.

So that was not only my spring semester but my fall semester as well. It’s been fun, if a bit dramatic on my part. And if you made it through that long description of my year without feeling an urge to kill me, then you might be a chemistry major. Come join me!

Just Good Enough


The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of amazing, challenging things to learn. It’s a little bit intimidating. I don’t feel that I’m learning as much as I ought or being as diligent as I ought. And every time I turn around, I read about a famous person who went to Princeton, or taught here, or dropped out. And I don’t feel like I can measure up. But then I remember it’s not a competition. It’s a collaboration.

There will always be someone smarter than you. This can be depressing, but I look at it another way. There is no smartest person. Unless someone out there has already written my thesis (which might have happened already) each person brings their own unique blend of interests to the game. And each person comes to the game at an entirely different point, meaning that everyone has something different to work with. Even if someone has already written my thesis, and done it better, I can always build on their work and, with the help of their work, learn more about the subject than anyone else has ever known. Being of average intelligence also means that there will always be people with whom I can collaborate so I don’t have to solve all my problems myself.

Besides, I’m not here to be smart. I’m here to bring glory to God. And maybe I can do that by bringing my own perspective to the collaboration I hope to have while I’m here. If I can do that, my work will good enough. Would it sound more impressive if all my work was done Imagesolo? Sure. Will I get further if I talk to people from different backgrounds and expertise? Definitely. You don’t want the success of a “collaboration” riding on your shoulders. Trust me. And if you surround yourself with people who are smarter (even if their smartness makes you feel stupid) you will get actual collaboration.

Just a thought. It’s beautiful here.

Things I’m Learning about Learning

I’m spending the summer at Princeton with a lot of really fun people. But where I’m learning isn’t as important as what I’m learning, and I’m learning a lot. Or at least, I’m trying to learn a lot. There is much I do not understand, and much of what I am learning (and relearning) is unrelated to what I’m studying.

1. Stop faking. If I pretend I know what is going on when I don’t, I put myself at a disadvantage. People will assume that I understand, and later, it will be harder to ask for help. I’m going to try to ask more questions. They can’t answer them if someone doesn’t ask them.

2. Ideas are everywhere. Other fields I don’t know much about have really good ideas. A lot of people are just happy to explain what they’re doing. It doesn’t count as plagiarism or stealing if they help you apply their idea to your own field. It’s called collaboration.

3. Literature is important. Scientific papers reveal what other people have already tried to do, and can provide ideas as well as warning. Brevity and clarity are important. Operating manuals for machinery are pretty boring, however.

4. Have fun. One of my supervisors recommended a voluntary project in addition to our assigned project. People who enjoy what they do tend to be better at it. It has to be voluntary. Relaxing without an extra project is also useful because it allows me to be more productive during work times than I would be if I worked all the time.

This “genius millionaire playboy philanthropist” sounds suspiciously like Buckaroo Banzai.

5. The Curve is steep. It’s really hard to absorb physics (and chemistry) on the fly. So I don’t beat myself up that I don’t ask more questions, that I find user’s manuals boring, or even that I’m scared and out of ideas for a side project. Or that when I relax, I spend hours reading web comics. People do not change in a day, but day by day. Likewise, a discipline is not conquered in a day. Unless you’re Ironman.

Maria Hill: When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?

Tony Stark: Last night.

~The Avengers(2012)

An Epic Quest

I got my brother a brown driver’s cap for Christmas, like the Ralph Lauren version pictured, only a third the price, from Target. It was perfect. On Christmas morning, we discovered that it was several sizes too small. Big heads run in the family. I checked the Target website, but the only size listed was M/L. But the cap was just too perfect. We had to find a replacement. My brother braved five Wal-Mart and one Kohl’s with us, and my brother is no hipster. We found nothing. We persevered to the mall. After tearing my mother away from the shinies in the JC Penney housewares section, we toured Aeropostale, Gap, and several other places of the like before the fellowship met its greatest trial yet.

I believe my brother fully realized the peril he risked when we entered the Abercrombie and Fitch store. It was shrouded by very professional looking black shades, but I choked upon entering. Someone had axe bombed the place, and nobody had bothered to clear it up. The dim interior was painted black, partitions had been erected, reminiscent of the maze of the minotaur, and large pictures of bare masculine chests covered the wall. Worse, preppy, rhythmic music was blasting from some unseen source. I wasn’t sure I could find my way out before I was smothered in the scent. I was reminded of the Mines of Moria. “We cannot get out. The end comes, and then, drums, drums in the deep.”

By the time we stumbled into the open, we had decided that a specialty hat shop might be more in our line. We discovered one, Hat Shack, and entered. The shelves were lined with baseball hats, but they had driver’s caps. Black driver’s caps. Failure. We limped home, and I consulted the Target website a second time. The hat was gone. The page was  purged. We decided to try the store one last time, if only to return the ill-fated hat. There, in the darkest corner of the hat shelf in the back of the store, we found it. One hat to rule them all. L/XL. We were victorious. I began to wonder why I hadn’t checked there first to begin with. I realize that probably had something to do with the one size listed on the website, and only three similar hats on the shelves.

The quest is completed, but some nights I lie awake wondering what could have been. Could I have found my own hat had I looked? And then I remember the darkened corridors of Abercrombie and Fitch, turn over with a shudder, and find sleep at last.

Encouragement from a Humble Mushroom

I like mushrooms. Mushrooms live in a dead and decaying world, yet they thrive. Mushrooms not only survive the decay, they survive because of it. They have discovered how to take the grossness around them and channel it into growth and new life. And so, if a mushroom finds itself on a dung heap, rather than becoming disgusting itself, it uses the dung to become a better, stronger, wiser, and more delicious mushroom than it could otherwise be.

I want to be like a mushroom.

That is all.


Thanks to Tony Cyphert for the use of his image.