Long Distance Supervisorship

I just finished writing my master’s thesis and I am now waiting for formal signatures before I can submit it. The whole experience is still too fresh in my mind for me to provide an objective assessment, but one aspect of my graduate studies is worth talking about: doing research under a remote supervisor.

We all had this experience: it is the lab’s holiday party and everybody is having a good time. When the night is over your supervisor wishes you luck on your next semester and assures you that he will keep contact next year. Your confused look prompts him to divulge more information. You didn’t know it, but he is going on a sabbatical next year so he will be abroad when you pursue your first year of actual research. Memories from previous unattended research come back to you! You steel yourself. At least, you had the experience before. Good night!

Sarah had a piece on long distance relationship during graduate studies. Let this be the post on long distance supervisorship.

Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor (Credits: science-notebook.com)

Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor
(Credits: science-notebook.com)


We are all Philosophers

About two years ago I was attending the going-away party for a member of my lab. He had successfully defended his PhD thesis and landed a job overseas at a very well known internet company. We were ‘shooting the wind’ as the cool kids say and some drinks had been emptied before we ventured into ‘changing the world’ discussions.

At some point he was asked something about ‘ideas’ to which he replied “Well what is an idea, really?”. I quipped “woah, mind…[open my hands around my head]… blown!”. And yet, here I am 2 years later, seriously wondering about it.

Well, what is an idea, really?

(Credits: Fair use originally from themindfulword.org)


The Summer is Heating up

With temperatures as high as 32°C and humidity levels above 50%, Montreal sweltering summer heat has finally arrived. When your colleague, back from China, says the weather in Beijing was cool compared to Montreal, you know it’s hot.

What is also heating up is work on the Thesis. The August deadline is looming on the horizon like a heat shimmer. Is it hot outside or is this bead of sweat here for another reason? Let’s just say I haven’t been writing blog posts lately for good reasons.

What is hard about academia is determining where to draw the line in the proverbial hot sand of research. It is clear to me at this point that there is no endpoint. No finishing tape to cross. It is all about the next questions that can be asked and the new spaces that can be explored. The results obtained are never completely different from what has passed before. What is next will not be too far from the present either.


Brush away but hopefully not in bad lands
(Source: Jurassic Park – The Lost World)


Big Ideas, Small Talks


Kristina Johnson, CEO of Enduring Hydro and former undersecretary of Energy
(source: Public Domain)

Small talks are the bread and butter of graduate life. You know, those little pamphlets pinned to billboards across campus? Well, some of them don’t advertise an n’th tutoring service. They don’t advertise a social club, a new search engine or even a “Four year-old computer CHEAP!!!”. No, some of  these pamphlets advertise small talks, in rooms you didn’t even know existed, by people which the unassuming presentation belies their extraordinary background.

On Wednesday May 28th, the McGill Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design held one these conference talks on “Renewable Energy and the role of Engineers”. The talk was given by Kristina Johnson who was on campus to receive an honorary doctorate. She is an incredibly distinguished woman who held many prestigious positions, but who donned her engineering hat for the occasion. Well, that hat and the one of former undersecretary of Energy under Steven Chu during Barack Obama’s first term. Her role boiled down to this: she had to manage a 10.5 billion dollar portfolio of investments in renewable energy with the goal to reduce the United-States’ carbon emission by 83% based on 2005 emission levels by 2050. This is not a small feat.


Keeping it trivial

Some of his woodcuts are titled Puddle, Dolphins, and Metamorphosis. Though he did not have a significant mathematical background, he was fascinated by figures such as Necker Cubes that are contradictory. This artist usually made lithographs, including Still Life with Spherical Mirror, Relativity, and Drawing Hands. For ten points, name this 20th Century Dutch graphic artist whose pictures contained logical contradictions.


3 Minutes to Change the World – Bilingual Audience Member Edition



This Monday, March 31st, McGill’s Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Office of Sustainability, and the Post-Graduate Students Society, hosted the third annual Three Minutes to Change the World event. It was a self-dubbed Ted-like event and it certainly delivered on that aspect. The students presenting (mostly Master’s students) gave dazzling performances both in English and in French.

Let me walk you through the presentations while peppering my summaries with some of my thoughts as an audience member. To keep in theme with the fact that this was the first time both English and French talks were given, I will summarize the English talks en Français et les présentations francophones in English!

Here are the cast of presenters – and a cast it is since this was quite the show:

Jay Olson a commencé l’évènement avec un tour de magie: “Choisissez une carte, n’importe laquelle et gardez la en tête” (Je traduis et je ne suis pas magicien donc ne vous attendez pas à beaucoup de magie de ma part!). La structure de la phrase et la façon dont elle est posée influence notre choix explique Olson; en fait la majorité des gens choisiraient l’as de pique ou une carte de coeur à visage. Utiliser cette forme de suggestion dans le contexte de thérapie de réhabilitation est un objectif de la recherche d’Olson. J’avais choisi le Joker noir en passant! (more…)

White Night

(credits: photo - Yunpeng Li, 'giffing' - me

(credits: photo – Yunpeng Li, ‘giffing’ – me)


Problematic Problem Statement

One of the biggest challenges for someone starting to do research for the first time is finding a good problem to work on and the subsequent challenge is to define it clearly. Obviously, the next step is then to execute on it, but let’s not worry about this today!

I had a hard time coming up with a problem statement or even problem area in my own research. In fact, I am in my second year as a master’s student and only in the recent weeks have I really latched on to the kind of problem I want to tackle for my thesis. There is still some work on the defining side of things, but at least the core nugget is there.

There are various reasons for this difficulty especially at the master’s level: limited time, limited ability, shallow knowledge of the field, youthful inexperience… For me one of the challenges was and is the fact that problems I can think of have already been solved in a more general and probably more accurate way than I could have hoped to produce. One then needs to go beyond that.

Trials and errors are part of the process. I am very much a visual thinker and so I imagine this process as finding the weak spot or concavity among a three dimensional web of works in one’s area of interest. This is where contributions can be made. It is then a matter of seeing if you can tie links around that spot to strengthen it. I see PhD thesis as adding a new node and a master’s one as maybe modifying an existing node or reconfiguring some links.

A web of ideas : an early snapshot of the internet (Under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License)

A web of ideas : an early snapshot of the internet
(Under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License)


Études Internationales Près de Chez Vous

Joyeux nouvel an Chinois!  (source: www.auston.edu.sg)

Joyeux nouvel an Chinois!
(source: www.auston.edu.sg)

Tout d’abord: n’ajustez pas votre écran. Ce que vous lisez est bien en Français.

Après toutes ces années ‘French is back on the blog’!

Aujourd’hui, je veux parler de la richesse culturelle que l’on trouve à McGill. Pourquoi étudier à l’étranger quand le monde peut venir à vous?

Les débats culturels contemporains sonnent toujours étranges à mes oreilles; à chaque fois que je rencontre des personnes de pays lointains j’en sors plus riche. Leurs différences débutent des conversations passionantes.


Guillaume uses this

How do you setup your things? Credits: localcomputerexpert.co.uk

How do you setup your things? (Credits: localcomputerexpert.co.uk)

In the vein of usesthis.com, this post summarizes what I use as a graduate student to do what I do. Hopefully others will contribute too.  

Beware though, this will get pretty nerdy.


Learning how to read again

Some months ago Alexandra wrote about how she had to ‘re-learn’ writing for a blog after spending most of her time writing for academic publications. I am faced with the converse: re-learning how to read academic publications after spending most of my time reading laymen’s writings.


Three Hidden Gems Near Campus

McGill is home to a great number of international students. 38% of graduate students at McGill are non-Canadian citizens. It can be hard for newcomers (or old timers!) to discover and experience those great activities that are sometimes only known to the locals. Add to that research and classes, and sometimes one can completely miss the various cultural events on or around campus.

Lucky for you, I am a native. so let me share with you three little gems that are typical of McGill and Montreal this time of year.

The Salon du Livre de Montréal Édition 2013

The Salon du Livre de Montréal Édition 2013
(Credits: Yunpeng Li)


Grad-ee-er-uate Student

I don’t know how to pronounce that either.

As a graduate student, I had the eye-opening experience to be on both sides of the fence: gradee and grader. In graduate school, you take classes and you grade classes. To be frank it often felt this way:

Credits: me (and some xkcd fonts)

Credits: me (and some xkcd fonts)


Autumn Blues?

Fall is a much maligned season. It is the messenger of cold things to come; the dead leaves seem to say in a Starkian voice: “Winter is coming”! If literary works about the season are any indicator (Blake’s “To Autumn”, Keats’ “To Autumn”, Dickinson’s -shorter- “Autumn”), it is the most melancholic time of year. The daylight wanes and the temperature scurries away alongside it.

Given that, it is easy to feel the autumn blues. To be depressed. Another summer has gone by. For a transitional season that is a little summer and a little winter, it doesn’t seem to show its sunny side up much. But I am here to show you otherwise! Fall is in fact my favourite season. Let me tell you how to survive it and perhaps even thrive in it.


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