Duke Visit, Part Two

This is the second entry that I wrote while visiting Duke but was unable to post until now. It was written 10 February 2006 at 9:50 pm. And it’s long, sort of like the day I wrote it. Don’t let that turn you off, though.


The hotel has partially redeemed itself by having extremely comfy beds. The comforter and pillows are fluffy and warm—just the sort that score points with me. All the same, I didn’t sleep very well. I couldn’t sleep past five for some reason. I’ve noticed that in the last year or so I’ve developed some sort of alarm anxiety. I’ll be so worried that the alarm will fail to wake me up for something important that I have a tendency to wake myself up naturally as much as two hours before an already early alarm. (The truly irrational bit? I’ve never once slept through an alarm in my life.)

Such was the case this morning. I finally gave up on attempting to sleep around 6:40 and just got up and dressed. Breakfast was an over-priced affair downstairs, but I don’t have to pay, so it’s no big deal for me, I suppose.

Thirty-one students, all engineering graduate applicants, gathered in the lobby shortly before 8:30 and we headed off to Duke via shuttle. We were greeted by K.P., the woman with whom I’d been exchanging e-mails and she showed us into the Hudson building where Duke’s four engineering departments are housed. There we met Professor Virgin, who seems to be from London originally, and, after eighteen years in North Carolina, has developed a peculiar accent that’s something like a softened English accent. Technical problems (yes, Mark, it was a Mac) prevented him from giving us his department presentation, but he gave a pretty good overview of the department and its graduate program.

Duke doesn’t have a set curriculum for graduate students. In fact, since the Ph.D.—which is the goal of nearly all of Duke’s graduate students—does not actually have a credit hour requirement, it is possible for one to earn a Ph.D. without ever taking a class. One would probably not pass the qualifier, but one could try. The average length of time to complete a Ph.D. is four-and-a-half years, and the department requires two semesters of TAing.

After that presentation, we headed across the way to the new Fitzpatrick building, which was completed all of eighteen months ago. It’s a lovely stone building. Lots of windows. We met back up with the other departments’ graduate applicants while Professor Virgin gave a presentation on the Pratt School of Engineering as a whole. The dean who was supposed to give the presentation was at a conference in Saudi Arabia.

It seems that Duke is in a period of significant growth as far as engineering is concerned. They also have a large emphasis on interdisciplinary work, but, as this is the Research Triangle, a lot of it is biologically-inspired. They have a center dedicated to biologically-inspired materials research, which I imagine would be very exciting, if that were my sort of thing.

A campus tour led by several of the current graduate students in the department was next. I should mention, perhaps, that only twelve of the thirty-one applicants there were in the MEMS department, and, aside from that second presentation and the reception, my time was spent entirely among those twelve.

Duke’s campus is lovely. There seems to be a nice balance of greenery and buildings. Stone and brick are predominant, and, outside of the engineering section, a lot of the buildings are done in the same Gothic/Neo-Gothic style that the Chapel is built in. After living in Germany, I have a soft spot for Gothic architecture. I love the Chapel and would really like to hear a good organist play there.

No campus tour is complete, of course, without a trip through the campus rec center, where we ran into a fencing competition actually and I got into a conversation with an aerospace engineer from NC State about saber fencing. We swung by Cameron Indoor Stadium, too, but could only stand in the lobby as the court was closed for practice.

The graduate students took us to a dining spot called the Loop for lunch; I ate a portobello mushroom pizza while chatting with a current grad and two other applicants, including J, the girl I’d met on the plane. One thing that the graduate applicants discovered in talking amongst ourselves is that many of us have applied and been invited to visit the same schools. Groups of three or four of us are meeting up at University of Florida, Stanford, and Cornell, among others. It’s a little crazy that it’s the same dozen or so people that these universities are going to end up fighting over. On that note, actually, it’s worth mentioning that I haven’t officially been offered admission to Duke yet, although, having invited me, the chances of getting an offer, including a first-year fellowship, are high.

After lunch, it was back to Hudson. A couple of current grads took us on a quick run through some of the labs. I was pleased to get a look at the wind tunnel. Its wind section is smaller than ours at Case, and it’s a re-circulating tunnel. Apparently, it gets used for quite a bit of aeroelasticity work.

My first faculty interview was with Dr. Knight, who had requested to speak to me after reading about my work with RoboMoth. It’s interesting how professors seem to have misinterpreted what I actually do with that work. In many cases, they seem to expect an actual robotic moth. All that aside, Dr. Knight had an interesting offer to work with some autonomous swimming robots that they’re working on. In order to make these, he and Dr. Howle, another professor I met, need to take a look at the fluid mechanics involved in the way different fish swim. The difficulty here, of course, is that the movement of a biological device like a fish tail is difficult to simulate with conventional engineering materials.

My conversation with Dr. Knight ran long, so I barely had time to speak to Dr. Howle, who primarily gave me a few papers on what he does before passing me to one of his graduate students, whose English I could barely understand because of his accent. He clicked around on a screen in a CFD program for a minute or so before showing me how to get to Dr. Virgin’s office.

Dr. Virgin and I chatted in general about my application and interests. He was very complimentary of Case, and was, actually, the only person to ask me why it was that I’d applied to Duke. We also discussed teaching requirements a bit more and where the department stood in terms of aerospace-related research, as the department does not offer a formal degree in aerospace engineering. He mentioned that they’re discussing offering some kind of concentration in the subject at the undergraduate level, given the number of faculty working on related problems.

I had a short break after my visit with Dr. Virgin, which I spent chatting with T from NC State. We discussed traveling and architecture among other things. Later on at the reception, we had a similar conversation about languages. He’s originally from India but seems to have spent most of his life here in the States.

My final interview was with Professor Hall, who chairs the department. His primary research is CFD in turbomachinery, which is not of all that much interest to me, although some of the modeling he talked about was more interesting than some CFD seems to be. He mentioned a grant to work on some miniature ornothopters—tiny robots with flapping wings—that sounded really interesting, but that doesn’t seem to be a long-term project. He and I had some fun discussing flapping wings in general, though.

I spent most of the reception talking with J and T. Some other graduate applicants floated in and out of the conversation and Dr. Virgin joined in at one point as well. When that was over, we went to dinner at a Thai noodle bar just off-campus with some of the current grads. It did not compare with Wagamama, but, really, what does?

After dinner we headed back to Cameron and arrived just in time for the tip-off of the women’s basketball game against Virginia. Duke led the whole game, though Virginia brought it close at times. The first half was not particularly exciting. In fact, the highlight might have been the mascot—a blue devil—riding a surfboard atop a series of band members who were rolling on the floor. We started out in the student section but moved to the upper levels so that we could sit and watch the game. Everyone’s legs were pretty tired after all the walking and standing of the day already.

The second half heated things up a bit. Duke was turning the ball over like crazy, and their rebounding was terrible for most of the game. Virginia was taking advantage of pretty much every chance they had to get their hands on the ball, and I suspect that their shooting average in the first part of the second half was a lot better than Duke’s. Then Duke called a timeout where I expect their coach threatened to murder their family members if they didn’t start rebounding because some Duke women were finally getting their hands on the ball when someone missed.

I was pretty amazed at how easily the refs called jump balls—guess I got too used to the rough-and-tumble international play. They also made a series of absolutely ridiculous calls, culminating in an announcement midway through the second half that, if anything else was thrown on the court, it would cost Duke a technical penalty. The irony here is that the object, an orange ball, while originally given to the crowd by the Duke cheering squad, was thrown from the Virginia section.

I also noticed throughout the night that the refs tended to call Duke on traveling but seemed to overlook a couple of blatant instances of traveling on the part of the Virginia players. Not that this ended up helping them much.

I’d forgotten how much I love the atmosphere at real college games. I think part of the reason I’ve never gone to a Case game is that I don’t want to sully the memory of what college basketball is supposed to be. Let’s just say that, even if I wasn’t yelling “Let’s go devils, let’s go!” with all the people in blue, I was definitely enjoying myself. And I sang along to “Hey, Baby”. A, from Texas but without the drawl and scary accent, was enjoying the game a lot, too. We were telling the refs—not that they could hear us over the Crazies—what they ought to have called. I get the impression that most of the other students who attended were not as partial to basketball as we were. In fact, it was one girl’s first basketball game!

On the way back to the hotel, I was struck by the camaraderie that had sprouted between the graduate applicants just that day. The entire trip back was spent amidst jokes and happy discussion about other schools we were going to visit as well as places we were still hoping to hear back from. Several of us exchanged e-mail addresses, and I suspect that I’ll be adding a few friends to Facebook soon.

Although I doubt that I’ll end up at Duke, I’m quite glad that I came. Duke is a lovely university and there seem to be a lot of great people around. Meeting other applicants—several of whom seem to be my peers at other institutions as well—was great fun, too. It seems likely that I’ll see some of them again, and perhaps even end up working with one or two of them. There are always those conferences. And, who knows, some of these people may end up being my co-workers after we all get our Ph.D.s. It’s a small world, right?

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