UVa Visit Part 2

This entry, like the last one, is a mish-mash of different writing times. Except in this case, I wrote the first section the night of and the later portions were fleshed out this morning. It’s quite a bit longer than the previous one, not least because Friday, the day this describes, was a busy, busy day.

Today was actually a lovely day. I got too little sleep, mostly because an allergic reaction to my hotel linens required some creative sleeping adjustments and because I woke up at 6:16 and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I gave up and got up early, listening to the Today show from Torino as I got ready. Shortly after nine, I was met in the hotel lobby by C, a post-doc of an interested professor–more on him later. We got bagels at a little local place on the Corner–a strip near the north side of campus littered with restaurants, shops and bars. Incidentally, there’s no corner involved at the Corner. C is originally from France, and we had some fun discussing differences in education and immigration between the U.S. and Europe. After breakfast, we headed across campus to the engineering section, passing the famous Rotunda and Lawn along the way. She didn’t know all of the history, but I still remember some from my visit to Monticello in 1998. The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson as the first proper university in the United States. He was the designer of the original architecture and campus grounds and dictated in many ways how the University should be run. I’m hoping to get an official tour and some photos tomorrow. Today I was really too busy to do that.

C first took me to the lab where she works in a bio- and thermal flow group. A new professor who is getting some of the lab for herself stopped in with another prospective graduate student at one point, and I discovered that she is an old friend of the newest professor in my department at Case. The number of people that I’m running into that know people I know at Case is getting higher all the time here! So are the number of messages that I’m meant to take back. (I didn’t mention it in the previous entry but I met a young woman on the plane who knows one of my classmates.)

My first meeting with a professor included another student as well. The project I would most likely be on, should I accept an offer from that professor, involves working on an artificial axial heart pump to help patients with congestive heart failure. I appreciate the practicality of the work, and the students I met from that group seemed like a good bunch to work with, but I’m not certain that the problem grabs me the way I want my graduate work to. (Maybe I’m too picky.)

That was followed with a tour of the Aerospace Research Laboratory, which was pretty damned cool, if I say so myself. They have a supersonic wind tunnel capable of running continuously that’s used primarily for supersonic combustion studies. There were a couple of projects discussed that involved SCRAMjet research, and, if I were to work in that group, it sounds like that would most likely be what I’d be inheriting. There was another fellow who does hypersonic re-entry vehicle study (very interesting, but the guy doing it is not the sort I’d want to work with), and a different one who looks at low-speed flapping wings. That lab tour was exciting, and, especially when I was having dinner with some of the students later, I thought that I could probably get along well with these guys. I haven’t had a chance to speak to the professor who would be my advisor in that case–he’s out of the country at the moment–but I did speak to his collaborator. My qualms? I’ve got some questions on funding; I’m not 100% certain that I want to be doing combustion; oh, and, I would be the only female working at the facility, which is a fair ways removed from the MAE building proper.

After that, it was off to lunch at a busy, little bistro on the Corner. By complete coincidence, the prospectives and the actual grad students ended up splitting by gender for lunch. Technically, we were divided based on interests–it just happened that the twelve males went one place and the six females went another. Of our group, there were two prospectives, myself and a girl who had been a UVa undergrad, and four current grad students, two of whom were biomech and two of whom were in fluids, I believe. Conversation was never lacking.

Lunch ran late, so we showed up late to the Center for Applied Biomechanics, which, if I thought that ARL was removed from campus, was practically in another state. I didn’t know what to expect when I headed in, especially when I was informed that it was a Biohazard Safety Level 2 facility and that that meant that they had cadavers on-hand. We started the tour, and I discovered that this meant that, among other things, this group does crash testing with human cadavers. It turns out that a lot of their findings directly influence government requirements for crash testing. The whole visit was intensely cool, if mildly creepy. I have to admit that I thought of Lindsey the would-be pathologist more than once.

As intriguing as the CAB was, I can’t see myself working there, despite being one of the six students described by one professor there as “the creme-de-la-creme of the applicant pool”. (Well, technically, he hadn’t seen my application, but, given an incident I’ll mention later, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have hesitated to describe me similarly. I hate how stuck up and narcissistic that makes me sound, though, and that’s probably why I never even bother thinking it.) The thing is, I know that I could do the work there. There’s nothing to stop me from doing that and I don’t have any doubts that I’d be good at it. The problem is that, even though I feel like it’s interesting and worthwhile, I also can’t help but feeling that my interest is not substantial enough. It’s a problem to be solved, and, therefore, I’d likely be interested enough to finish it, but I don’t think that it would consume me, that I would love every moment, even when I’m busy hating it. I somehow get the feeling that what I’m looking for in these visits is the Right Place, and I’ll know it when I’m there. I’ll know the project that will excite me to the point that I can’t wait to go into the lab every morning. And that’s where I want to be. I feel like, in some respect, that expecting that sort of high ideal (I won’t say perfection because I’m not expecting perfection–I fully expect frustrations galore) is unreasonable of me. Why should I, in a world where so many people spend their lives doing things they don’t love, expect someone to hand me my graduate school version of a dream life? In some respects, I don’t. But as I’ve gotten more and more offers and more and more shows of interest from schools and professors, I’ve realized that I truly have my pick of who I want to work for and what I want to work on. I know that I’m lucky in that respect. And I know that I’m stumbling in the dark in some ways because I don’t have a clear idea of what research problems I want to tackle. I just have this idea that I’ll know what I’m in love with when I find it.

So far, as I sit hearing professors or graduate students talk to me about a project I could potentially work on, I find myself asking myself, “Do you think you could work on this for five years?” Sometimes the answer is iffy, sometimes I think, “Yeah, I could do that.” I have yet to think, “Oh dear God, yes, can I please start tomorrow?” I’ve got my fingers crossed on that one happening at some point. I’m a dreamer, yeah.

My trip to the CAB was followed by a chat with the graduate director of the department, who gave me a short run-down on the graduate curriculum–what I hadn’t gathered already from asking students. Then we headed a room over for the social, where professors and graduate students mingled over appetizers. I spent most of my time there talking to Nic, another prospective grad student and S, the professor I mentioned earlier who knows the new professor here at Case. At one point, though, I was pulled aside by the graduate chair, who informed me that I’ve been awarded a Dean’s Fellowship at UVa, which means that, if I attend, I’ll receive an additional $2,000/year in stipend for three years. Their site describes the award as one given to “outstanding entering graduate students,” so that’s really quite flattering.

Another professor pulled me out so that we could go to his office and chat. This fellow (we’ll call him P) is the advisor to both J (who picked me up from the airport) and C (who took me to breakfast). Before I came, he sent me a short description of some of his research projects, so I had a suspicion that my RoboMoth sensory stuff caught his eye. Turns out that he’s an old friend of the biology professor who advises my work here. I was also impressed that he recognized my advisor’s name, too, particularly as sensory work is only a minor side project for him. It turned out, however, that P did not seem all that interested in trying to sell me on his research projects. He spent most of our meeting asking me what I was looking for in graduate school, something that no one had actually asked me before. My overall impression was that he was simply and genuinely interested in getting to know me. I spent quite a bit of time thereafter mulling over that conversation. I think that was the first time that I realized a lot of what I discussed a little earlier about the Right Place.

Dinner was an affair with four ARL students and one other prospective student. We headed well off-campus to a place called Thai ’99, which, while good, did not rank up with the Orchid Cafe, a place I used to love in Michigan. Perhaps, however, I just ordered the wrong entree, because one of the grad students had this shrimp dish that involved coconut milk, and it tasted spectacular. Conversation ranged all over, and I had a good time. It was pretty clear to me by the end of the evening that I could get along well with most of the guys. There were only two that I had some misgivings about, but that’s to be expected anywhere.

I’d planned to go out with Nic that evening and returned to my room to find that he’d called multiple times, the last time only fifteen minutes before I’d gotten back. Unfortunately, he’d already left, so I ended up spending the evening in my room enjoying some of the videos I’d brought with me.

3 Responses to “UVa Visit Part 2”

  • Why should I, in a world where so many people spend their lives doing things they don’t love, expect someone to hand me my graduate school version of a dream life?

    Wow… that’s a wonderfully thought-provoking question.

  • Dude. Cadaver-testing is so scary – you should read “Stiff: The Curious Life of the Human Cadaver” for more. In fact, the author may have mentioned UVa; I can’t quite remember…

  • @Greg:

    It’s thought-provoking enough to make me feel terribly guilty. My parents pretty much mocked me as soon as I tried to explain my feelings about the issue to them. I don’t think that they understand that I’m not expecting perfection. I simply feel like, given that I now have so many places to choose from, that I should go with whatever feels most right, and, in the meantime, I can dream of finding that place.


    You’re making me want to look that up. Seriously. And that very fact frightens me. What a bad influence you are! :p

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