Thursday, October 23, 2014

Database of wide concrete members failing in shear

It's with pleasure and pride that I announce today that we have published a paper in the Magazine of Concrete Research. It's already available ahead of print on the MoCR website.

This paper is based on a part of the second chapter of my dissertation, which focused on compiling a database of experiments on slabs in shear from the literature.

The abstract of the paper is the following:

Shear in reinforced members has been a topic of study for many decades. Recently, the shear capacity of slabs subjected to concentrated loads – the case between one-way shear (also called beam shear) and two-way shear (or punching shear) – has been given more attention because this case is encountered in bridge engineering. This paper aims to give an overview of the existing code methods for shear and to bring together experiments from the literature on wide beams and slabs failing in shear. The database of collected experiments is then compared with the Eurocode provisions. A large scatter was found in the ratio of experimental to predicted values. This observation indicates that the experiments under consideration should be studied in subsets according to the failure mode and that better methods for determining the shear capacity of wide concrete members are necessary. The database also shows the need for experiments aimed at studying shear in one-way slabs and the effect of different parameters on the shear capacity.

Did you notice how quickly this paper went through? Look into the header of the paper, and you see that I submitted it on May 5th 2014, it was revised on June 23rd and then accepted on June 26th. I've never had a journal paper breezing through so easily...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Predicting the Shear Capacity of Reinforced Concrete Slabs subjected to Concentrated Loads close to Supports with the Modified Bond Model

For IABSE 2014, I published the first paper about the theoretical work about the Modified Bond Model from my dissertation.

The abstract of the paper is:

The shear problem is typically studied by testing small, heavily reinforced, slender beams subjected to concentrated loads, resulting in a beam shear failure, or by testing slab-column connections, resulting in a punching shear failure. Slabs subjected to concentrated loads close to supports, as occurring when truck loads are placed on slab bridges, are much less studied. For this purpose, the Bond Model for concentric punching shear was studied at first. Then, modifications were made, resulting in the Modified Bond Model. The Modified Bond Model takes into account the enhanced capacity resulting from the direct strut that forms between the load and the support. Moreover, the Modified Bond Model is able to deal with moment changes between the support and the span, as occurs near continuous supports, and can take into account the reduction in capacity when the load is placed near to the edge. The resulting Modified Bond Model is compared to the results of experiments that were carried out at the Stevin laboratory. As compared to the Eurocodes (NEN-EN 1992-1-1:2005) and the ACI code (ACI 318-11), the Modified Bond Model leads to a better prediction.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

An academic schedule from the lab bench

Today in our series about academic schedules I have the pleasure to invite David A. Russler-Germain, who shows what his days look like. David is an MD/PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. He is beginning his fourth year in his thesis lab, where he studies the role of DNA methylation in the pathogenesis and treatment of acute myeloid leukemia under the mentorship of Dr. Timothy Ley.

How does an average day start for me? Fortunately, my wife (also an MD/PhD candidate) and I only live two blocks off campus, so the alarm is set for 7:45 AM — this leaves us enough time to get ready, down some coffee, and be in lab by 9:00 AM. If I’ve been relatively organized over the past few days, I can usually dive right into my first set of tasks once I arrive at lab after I set up my computer and grab more coffee.

Often I am working on three projects at once in the lab. My primary focus is always explicitly part of the objectives outlined in my thesis proposal, which my mentor and I both prioritize unless I’m close to a major advance on another project, or working on something else particularly time-sensitive. Second, I maintain a self-initiated side-project that I strive to keep conceptually (but not necessarily directly) related to my thesis aims. Here I have more leeway to try out new things — provided I keep my expenses in line and stay productive. Lastly, I also have a collaboration with a fellow in the lab — I provide various complementary technical skills and an eager ear for daily brainstorming, while doing my best to learn from my more senior colleague, both regarding science as well as career planning.

For all of these projects, there is a wide range of tasks needing to be done each day, including: running western blots and protein biochemistry assays, DNA cloning, maintaining and manipulating in vitro cell cultures, keeping an eye on and analyzing a retroviral mouse model of leukemia, and computational analyses of genomics data. After a few years in lab, I’ve gotten better at multitasking. A typical morning this week involved selecting bacterial colonies from eight ligation reactions, starting two western blots using samples prepared earlier in the week, splitting two cell lines, and starting a flow cytometry stain on samples isolated from mice the previous day. I can almost always find at least 20 minutes between 11 AM and 2 PM to have lunch (I know some PhD students whose experiments truly don’t allow for even 15 minutes of downtime many days).

I have to admit there are almost always two or three times per morning that I check my email and Twitter for 3-5 minutes. I’ll usually open ~5 links from my Twitter feed to read later (almost always science related), and I’ll mark the few emails I need to reply to that day so I remember to get to them. I can usually find 20-30 minutes after coming back from lunch to read a paper, news article, or blog post I had seen on Twitter, as well as get most of the way caught up on my emails.

One lesson I learned early in my PhD training from the most senior graduate student at the time was to always assume your afternoon will be disrupted — if you don’t plan for this, your afternoon will assuredly get disrupted and something will have to be sacrificed. Lab meeting, journal club, seminars, and collaborator meetings all tend to get scheduled between 1 and 4 PM, so it can be tough to find several consecutive hours in the afternoon to get big chunks of lab work done without interruptions. If I make a jam-packed to-do list for both the morning and the afternoon, anything I fail to finish in the first half of the day ends up impinging on the time and focus I have reserved for my afternoon tasks. I’d rather have an extra 15-30 minutes in the afternoon to read a paper or plan for the next day than be scrambling to finish my work and be more prone to making mistakes. That being said, this is a hard plan to adhere to, though I’ve found it a helpful goal to keep.

I’m very fortunate that my mentor takes a keen interest in everyone’s work in lab, which means I have the luxury of sitting down to talk with him for at least 10-20 minutes essentially every day. My bench is on the wall outside of his office, so I also have an easy time popping in and asking him brief questions or showing him data the moment I collect them.

By 6 PM, my wife and I start texting each other to get an estimate of when we’ll be done in lab — credit goes to her for being the far more accurate estimator of timing in lab. I try to put in a good effort to organize my lab materials and notes before heading home each evening. It is easy to convince yourself that “I’ll remember tomorrow what these tubes labelled #1, #2, and #3 are!” Wrong. For every nine times you do remember, the tenth time you won’t and it’ll set you back a week or more in lab, not to mention be a huge waste of money for reagents. It’s also not very much fun to try to start experiments in the morning on a dirty bench (likely covered in precipitated salts from drops of buffers spilled everywhere), so a few minutes of relabelling and boxing up my tubes, as well as a quick spray of 70% ethanol and paper towel wipe go a long way in ensuring good and enjoyable science.

Finally, about two or three nights per week, I return after dinner to lab to work from 8 or 9 PM until 11 PM or midnight. I usually find that I have enough things going on that four or five tasks of 10-20 minutes each can really get me an entire day ahead in lab. Usually, this means putting a primary antibody on western blots and letting them incubate at 4°C overnight, setting up a PCR, etc… If we don’t have social plans, the weeknights I’m not back in lab after dinner are often prime paper-reading times for my wife and me.

All in all, while the tasks I do each day can vary widely depending on the project I’m working on, my days in lab are pretty similar in terms of their structure: experiments take up 75% of my time, with formal meetings, conversations with my boss or other lab members, and reading papers filling the remaining 25% in various ratios each day. Coming back to lab after dinner (as well as almost always for 2-6 hours each Saturday and Sunday) is something that I enjoy and am lucky to be able to do. There truly has not been a single day of graduate school when I didn’t wake up looking forward to the work I had going on that day. While sometimes I wish I could’ve slept in later and don’t want to get out of bed yet, I still look forward to my research. When I have work to do, I want to do it. I also enjoy my time off, watching football, going cycling or golfing, cooking something fun, etc… with my wife and our friends. I encourage future PhD students reading this to choose their careers path with this in mind. Don’t forget to have a life outside of lab, but also don’t forget that graduate school is a long road with primarily intellectual – not material – rewards, and a PhD is not simply a training period for your “future career”. It is your “career”.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

People Plan, and Life Laughs

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Adam Feinman to discuss his academic schedule. Adam received a B.S. in Computational and Systems Biology from UCLA in 2008 with a minor in Mathematics. He is currently jointly pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering. He is characterizing and optimizing the use of surface electromyography (sEMG) to control devices. These projects are intended to have broad applications in various clinical uses, such as creating prosthetics or analyzing sensorimotor impairments. Aside from blogging, he writes and plays piano in the free moments between classes, teaching, research, and family. His personal blog can be found at

The title of my post is the politically-correct version of an old Yiddish saying: "Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht", "man plans and God laughs". We should probably remember to laugh too, because life's too serious as it is!

Whenever you read posts about how people manage to be productive, they usually turn out to be written by people who are extremely disciplined, whether by nature or by training. For example, I once read this article. I know that people other people like him (such as my wife!) who can schedule down to the minute and execute it, but I have a great deal of trouble relating to their advice. Discipline, sticking to schedules, and estimating how long tasks take have never been my strong suit. While I have generally found the practice of scheduling my activities (be they professional or personal) a very useful practice, at least for now I'm not capable of running as tight a ship as he does, and I don't think being so disciplined is a requirement for success in life. Success comes from playing to your personal strengths and finding ways to compensate for your weaknesses. My strength is being flexible without being entirely structure-less, but for me, too much structure leads to important things falling by the wayside.

I think everyone, myself included, can inculcate more discipline into their life, and benefit thereby. If it doesn't come naturally to you, how do you ensure you are doing your utmost to accomplish?

"Schedule" has a baby sister, and her name is "List". The thing that keeps me going is having my List that I update every week. I hesitate to call it a "to-do list" partially because of how much that term makes people cringe, but also because it doesn't only contain tasks. On my List is everything I need to accomplish, and everything I desire. There is no need to simplify on "the List"; if anything, I use it to get every detail I care about down on paper. And with the advent of The Cloud, I've found it useful to copy-and-paste the current version of my list and only update the copy. Being able to trace the progression of tasks allows you backtrack and see when things were accomplished, if necessary. And any time you're feeling blue, you can look back to the beginning and see how many things you have accomplished and the turns your life has taken. Thanks, by the way, to Laura Shum (@lauracshum) for that nugget of wisdom!

I tend to organize my List like an outline. For example, I will usually have a number of headers for work-related things-to-do. So each experiment will get a header, and sub-tasks will have one indents, details will have two indents, etc. Here's a recent example:

My List example

This is an old List, and even though it was a month and a half ago, bears little resemblance to the things I'm up to right now. Looking at it and seeing how much things have changed in a scant six weeks inspires me to keep pushing.

At the bottom, you can see there's a header for "personal items". For obvious reasons, I didn't include that part of my List in this post; it's personal! But I can tell you that some of the things include: build exercise into my week; practice piano; set times to socialize. These are all things that, when I schedule them and do them only at the scheduled times, life is better all around.

There is no way to have a realistic discussion of scheduling without touching on the issues of work-life balance. Most people in the world, even if they love their work, desire and pursue a life more complex than work-eat-sleep. There will be elements of life that cannot fit into a rigid schedule, the most obvious of these is family. No matter what makes you feel loved, whether it's getting attention or having tasks-to-do taken off your plate, it takes time, and can't always fit a schedule. And kids! New babies demand attention entirely impulsively, so you might have to be prepared to throw rigid scheduling out the window. Even when they get older, they are still emotionally dependent on you, so you can't always wave a schedule in their faces. But if you provide your life (and their lives) with zero structure, you're essentially being productive when you feel like it, and that's not a recipe for success.

There are always some things that you can plan on doing on a weekly basis. I tend to find that with my List and a weekly template in hand, you can do a lot to identify reasonable work hours, fit in the things you want to do, and plan time to relax. Here's an example:

Schedule Template

The things on my template for the semester in green are non-negotiable except for emergencies. Red are work tasks; they need to happen but are the easiest to move around. Blue are personal, and I'll be more willing to shift around the red than the blue usually. As you can see, there are LOTS of holes in the schedule. Those holes have to be filled in on a weekly basis. It allows me to account for what's going on in life, what tasks need priority, and who needs my attention. It allows be to factor in the need to rest the mind and the need to socialize without losing track of productivity.

At the end of the day, you have to be clear with yourself from the outset that schedules are merely a game plan, and life will play jokes on your plans. And when life plays jokes on you, just say "Oh, silly you!" and start rearranging your puzzle pieces. Life, productivity, family, planning, it's all one big game, really. Even the best batters only hit the ball 30% of the time. All we can really do is our best, and that has to be enough.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Time neither stretches nor shrinks

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Natalia Sali, who shares with us her academic schedule. Natalia is a second year part time PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London, College of Social Work. Her research is on parental mental health of parents from Black and Minority Ethnic community. She studied in Centro Escolar University (Philippines), University of the Philippines, and University of Westminster. She has a degree in Social Work, MA in Social Work, and Diploma in Health and Social Care Management. She works full time as manager of Contact a Family in Southwark, and has been working in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years. Natalia also volunteers with the Southwark branch of the London Vegan Society.

How often do we hear people saying they have a thousand things to do, and have very little time? As PhD students, we sometimes feel this way. When one is working, has a family, and has other interests – having to read dozens of books and articles, to write long essays, conduct field work, transcribe, attend seminars and conferences, and meet our supervisors – seem to be overwhelming.

My personal view though is that time is constant. There will always be 24 hours a day, and it will never be a surprise to know we only have 24 hours a day. I am however only in my second year and I know that my experience is different from the rest who are already in the middle of their research. Nevertheless, there might be some principles here that one can take.

Catch that early sunshine
. It helps to be an early riser. I wake up at 6am to eat breakfast, catch up with emails, read academic blogs and tweets, and prepare for work. During autumn and winter, I squeeze in 45 minutes of jogging (from 7am to 7.45). During summer, I run after work. Being physically fit boosts the energy, and waking up early means we can accomplish a lot.

Don’t neglect your ‘bread and butter’. The 9 to 5 job, five days a week use up almost half of my week. But work pays the bill, and the tuition fees! When I enter the office, I am on work mode.

Work mode to pre-study mode.
It is important to set a boundary between work and study, and to train one’s self to do so. The moment I log out and turn my work computer off, I switch to non-work things. During summer and spring, I go for a jog from 5.30pm; followed by cooking dinner at 6.30 pm; dinner at 7.00pm; and do volunteer work where I write and respond to emails.

Study mode.
At 8.00pm, I read books and take notes. I do an hour then take a break for 15 minutes; continue for an hour, writing down my thoughts on what I read, until I need another short break. I study for three hours. It is important to find that time of the day where we are most productive.

Easy mode. If I don’t have an essay to write, or have just finished one - I read leisurely. It is different though when I have an essay to write, in that I don’t read other books but only the ones related to my topic.

Sleep mode. At 12am, I lie down and read tweets or read/send messages to friends. I sleep at 12.30 am.

Weekend miscellany. Contrary to what others might think about PhD students, we do have social life. I visit friends, or go out with them. It’s also my time to go for a swim at our local leisure centre. I have time to shop for fresh veggies and fruits at the local market, and experiment on new vegan recipes. I do volunteer work – e.g. write articles for newsletters, or respond to emails.

On Sundays, I’d read some more, search university libraries online for good books, list them down so I can drop by the library the next time I pass by it. I also find online articles related to my research topic and save them in my laptop.

I know the time requirement in conducting a research. I did two try out interviews. For one interview – including setting it up, travel, the interview itself, and transcribing - took seven to eight hours.


1. Avoid time wasters. Social network sites are useful for non-academics but not for us. We learn more from reading online resources, academic blogs and tweets.

2. Book-on-the go. Always bring a book as you travel by public transport. Thirty minutes of reading helps a lot.

3. Cut travel time. On your way to meetings (work-related or not), and you are passing by your favourite library – you can always return or borrow books. This saves you time to specifically make the travel to the library. It will help if you have listed down the books you want to borrow. There might also be some shopping to do, so why not drop by your favourite supermarket on your way home?

4. Don’t procrastinate. Even if you are feeling lazy, don’t fall for it. Merely starting a paragraph or two, or a framework for your essay is a quick win. That first sentence is crucial, but once you have started it, ideas will flow. Finishing the work on schedule means you have enough time to proofread it, or find more information you might need to improve it.

5. Every little thing helps. When we are busy writing, someone has to do the dishes, or the laundry, empty the rubbish bins, and sort out the recycling; or simply listen to us when we get stuck on something. They might not be able to offer solution but they can always reassure us and encourage us to stay focused. We have friends with writing skills whom we can always ask for help. Our supervisors are always ready to help, so when we are stuck, give them a ring!

6. File it away! – Don’t underestimate the time you save by maintaining a good filing system- for both hard and electronic materials. I write details of the books I read on index cards so that I can always go back to them later (also for correct referencing).

And as Benjamin Franklin said, “You may delay, but time will not”. We need not delay. The more we learn to manage our schedule, the easier for us to finish that PhD.

Good wishes fellow students!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Website with academic profiles: Peerologie

Today I have invited Shadi to share her project, Peerologie, with us. Shadi is a third year Clinical Psychology PhD student, concurrently pursuing a Master's in Public Health at the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program. Her research interests are the interface of behavioral medicine and social psychology and include dyadic concordance among patients with chronic illnesses and their romantic partners and body image in rare and disfiguring chronic illnesses. Shadi also holds degrees from Stanford University and the London School of Economics and has a professional background in business development and social marketing. 

There once was a curious graduate student......mesmerized by a flight of interdisciplinary project ideas, but without a central space to focus and begin her queries. She was interested in exploring interfaces between cognitive science and economics, clinical psychology and law, management science and feminist studies, biomotion and linguistics...but the beautiful chaos and limitlessness that initially drew her to these areas would start to feel overwhelming without at least a starting point to begin the exploration…
…that graduate student was me. Until recently, my (very) varied interests seemed like a dirty academic secret; true scholars are supposed to have CVs where the lists of publications serve as elegant, systemic entryways into understanding the academics’ career paths and research interests. The story that the list weaves should be clean; it should be linear and should make sense.  
But, as those of us with interdisciplinarity running through our veins know all too well, the story may not be so neat. It was this love of varied subject areas in gloriously, brazenly disparate disciplines that spurred the development of Peerologie.

Peerologie provides a snapshot of emerging areas of study through the lens of academics in their respective fields and allows a glimpse into what creative pieces move the academic in life. Each expert is simply asked to provide the following:

  •        A quick blurb on what the academic is most passionate about at the moment (this can be in the form of a short bio or several keywords)
  •        Three seminal pieces that the academic would recommend reading in beginning the research journey in this area (authored by the academic or others)
  •      A piece of writing/novel/poem/essay/short story (anything) that the academic simply finds beautiful or inspirational (Why? Because I would love to know what Žižek's favorite poem is...wouldn't you?)

If you know a professor or other scholar doing the type of innovative research that gets academicians across disciplines excited, or if you’re that scholar, please send an email to with the information above and a picture to go along with the post, or to nominate an individual. Let's grow this valuable database and encourage interdisciplinary, innovative research!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to find focus for deep work

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Regardless of where you are in your academic career, finding time and space for deep work is essential to move your research forward.

You could easily fret away your days and weeks taking care of the maybe more urgent, but certainly less important tasks. Ever spent an entire day on running to the copy center for copies of notes, filling in admin forms, sitting in meetings and replying emails? Happens to me as well - but last time I checked my job description did not contain those tasks (or somehow the description did mention I need to help out with my department, but certainly other tasks are my core business).

So how can we make sure that, in the jungle of responsibilities you might have, you can do your deep work - the deep thinking that actually moves your research forward, the very core of advancing your field?

I have a few tips for you, that worked well (although needing less strict guidelines) during my years as a PhD student, and that, now, have been finetuned for live as a young faculty member with a very heavy teaching load.

1. Block periods of time for deep work

If you don't schedule it, it is not going to happen. Since I have quite a number of different tasks, combined with a heavy teaching load, I make a weekly template for my semester, and I make sure I block at least 10 hours a week for research into my schedule. Those hours then are again subdivided into time for writing papers, time for reading papers, and time for doing the actual research. While these hours are limited, I block them off in my calendar, and protect them for dear life.
Admittedly, at the beginning of the semester, in which I'm preparing a class I'm teaching for the first time, my weekly template tips a little heavier towards the teaching and class preparation time, but once the semester catches on, I will shift the balance back towards more time for research and deep work.

2. Make sure everything you need is on your desk

If the time is there for your hour of deep thinking (or more time, if you can), then make sure you have everything on your desk you need to start thinking. Get all the research papers you need, take a pencil and paper, take your data, and then toss out everything you don't need. Put your cellphone on silent and stash it in a drawer, move your laptop to the side, and focus on the essentials.
Having everything ready on your desk is an excellent way to avoid having to leave your desk to search for a book. Similarly, clearing away all distractions sets the tone for a block of time of uninterrupted, deep work.

3. Find what works for you

Understand your circadian rhythms, and take advantage of your best times of the day for your deep work. This time is different for everybody, so pay close attention to your focus and energy throughout the day to identify your sweet spot. Don't schedule a block of deep work right after teaching class: you will be tired, and more often than not, extra questions from students, and random errands you want to run after class, will eat away the time you scheduled for deep work.

See if you can concentrate best with or without music (or perhaps a background track, such as binaural beats). If your office is noisy, noise-canceling earphones might be a godsend. I prefer instrumental music as a background in noise-canceling headphones in my office (because of the business of its location, right next to a large classroom), and silence and quiet when I work from my home office.

Try out different locations to see where you can concentrate best. Try out working from your office, home, library or coffee place, to see what helps you getting into your deep thoughts without getting disturbed. My office in Delft is by far my most tranquil spot, but I'm not even in The Netherlands most of the year, so I'm still looking for my best option: I'm undecided between my home office (which has the disadvantage of having a too small desk) and my university office (noisy, and the desk and chair are absolutely not ergonomic).

4. Take it step by step

Don't sit down with a pencil and a sheet of paper, thinking that you will for once and for all solve the mystery of Life, the Universe and Everything. Break down your research question into smaller steps. See where you can push the boundaries of what you know, and start exploring from there. Ask yourself questions, question the boundary conditions of what you read, question the assumptions of standing theories, and explore bit by bit.

5. Read for inspiration

Reading fuels creativity, and reading papers is not only the best way to stay up to date with your field of research, but also a means to start your own research. Look for contradictions between papers, and try to solve why these contradictions exist in the first place. Take a math-heavy paper, and see if you can derive the equations by yourself. Start from the body of knowledge, and see where it take you.

6. Hang into the discomfort

Deep work can be deeply satisfying and rewarding, but it is not a means for instant gratification. You only reap the rewards after a time of friction and discomfort. Don't give up when you feel that discomfort starts to arise. Don't listen to those inner voices that tell you that you will never be able to solve the problem at hand. Just take it slowly, one step at a time, and suddenly you will feel that the gears in your head start spinning again, and that you are overcoming this friction to start moving forward.

7. Start small, and reward yourself

If you don't have a regular habit of sitting in discomfort and doing deep work, you might want to start small, and build up your focus muscle. You won't be able to sit in monk-like concentration for 8 hours straight when you are used to multitask and rush around campus (and who ever achieves this deep level of focus anyway?). However, challenge yourself to start small - say, 25 minutes, for the first time. If you manage to concentrate on the problem for 25 minutes (a Pomodoro time), then pat yourself on the back, take your favorite food for lunch or promise yourself a cup of wine and a good book at night. Learn to hang into that discomfort, and reward yourself later on for doing so.

These seven tips can help you started on grinding down the deep research questions you need to solve to move your field forward. Tell me, how do you make sure you find the time for deep work, and what is your working style?