Thursday, October 20, 2016

Q&A: Working from your parents' house

I recently got an interesting question, of which I'd like to share my answer with you.

Here´s the question:


This is a random cry for help but I am writing my dissertation and just moved back in with my parents at the same time. Uninterrupted writing time is impossible, I am now the maid and house project do-er of all things and I haven't written a word. My defense is in October and I'm teaching part time at a local university. I have my dual monitor set up and all my resources here at the house so working elsewhere hasn't really worked well for me. Any advice on navigating this without being a terrible person and telling my parents to leave me alone!? I'm also almost 30 and have been out of the nest for over 10 years just moved back in to save money. I feel so ungrateful but I can't get anything done and I need to graduate! Thank you so much...

This is what I answered:

Hi Reader,

Thanks for reaching out to me through my blog.

I understand you are in quite a complicated situation, and that it might be hard to work from your parent's house. Way back when I was still studying in Brussels, I returned homw to study for exams while my parents had health problems, and it was difficult balancing studying and taking care of them (and worrying). After my PhD, I returned to my parents' house while I prepared for my move to Ecuador, and tried to work over distance for TU Delft. My mom was very happy to have me back with her, so it was hard for me to shove her off and tell her that I really needed to concentrate on writing that paper... Long story short, I understand how being back at your parents house can not be an ideal situation, and how you also try not to come across as grumpy and ungrateful.

With that said, I think there are a few things that can help you:

1. Make a to do list
If you need to fix things in the house, cook, run part of the household and all that, it helps to make a todo list. You can't fix all the problems of the house in a day or in a week, so you might want to make a list of what you want to/need to do first, and then distribute that over time.

2. Make a planning and a schedule
Distributing tasks over time, you might for example think of what you can reasonably do in 1 - 2 hours a day. Clean the bathroom, cook, and replace the shower curtain, for example on one day; groceries, making soup, and giving the kitchen a good cleaning the next day? You can, for example, block the time period 5pm - 7 pm for those tasks. You can use google calendar to make a weekly template. Put in your calendar your teaching hours, including the commute, and then see if you can reasonably fit, for excample, 10 blocks of 1,5 to 2 hours in your schedule for writing, so that you know that those need to be your uninterrupted writing times.

3. Pomodoro?

Have you tried the pomodoro technique of working in short bursts of time? You can set a timer for 20 minutes to draw a specific figure, write a certain paragraph, revise a literature source. After 1 pomodoro, you get 5 minutes of break, psosibly to interact with your parents - you can come out of your room and have a quick chat with them. After 4 pomodoros, you take a 30 minute break - have a coffee with your parents and talk a bit with them.

4. Noise-canceling headphones
I love noise-canceling headphones. They are big and chunky, help to obliterate all the noise from outside, and they also signal to other people "I'm busy, please come back later". They are rather pricey at about 300 euros, but if you can spare the money, it's a really good investment.

Do these ideas help you? Please let me know how it is going.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Probabilistic prediction of the failure mode of the Ruytenschildt Bridge

We recently published a paper about the probabilistic analysis of the failure mode of the Ruytenschildt Bridge in Engineering Structures. You can download the paper for free for a month before it goes in hiding behind a paywall.

The abstract is as follows:

In the Netherlands, the shear capacity of a large number of existing reinforced concrete solid slab bridges is subject to discussion, as initial assessments indicated that their capacity was insufficient. In certain cases, the deterministic value of the moment capacity is larger than the deterministic value of the shear capacity. However, when the variability of the material properties, and of the capacity models themselves are factored in, a probability of a certain failure mode can be calculated. Here, a method is introduced to calculate the chance that a cross-section fails in shear before it fails in bending.

The method that is derived here is applied to the Ruytenschildt Bridge. This case study is a reinforced concrete solid slab bridges that was tested to failure in two spans during the summer of 2014. The relative probability of failure in shear of the bridge was determined. The predictions indicated a smaller probability of a shear failure than of a bending moment failure. In the first tested span, failure was not reached, but indications of flexural distress were observed. In the second span, a flexural failure was achieved, in line with the probabilistic predictions. The presented method can be used in the assessment of existing bridges to determine which failure mode is most probable, taking into account the variability of materials and capacity models.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I am Lana Sinapayen, and This is How I Work

Today, I am inviting Lana Sinapayen in the "How I Work" series. Lana was born near Paris but raised in Martinique, a small French island in the Caribbean. She stayed stayed in Martinique until the end of high school, then joined an engineering school in Lyon. During her engineering years, she had the chance to travel to China, Vietnam and Japan. She liked Japan the most and went back several times before finally moving there in 2012.

Current Job:
PhD Student
Current Location: Department of Complex Systems, Tokyo University, Japan
Current mobile device: Android

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I am in my 2nd year of PhD at the Ikegami Lab and I specialise in Artificial Life / Artificial Intelligence.

I was born near Paris, but raised in a small French island in the West Indies (Martinique) where I lived until I graduated from high school. I then went back to the continent to attend an engineering school where I had the chance to learn new languages, like Japanese, and do an internship in the country. I decided to move to Japan before completing my Engineering degree and obtained an agreement that allowed me to get both a French degree as an IT engineer and a Japanese Master's degree in Mathematics and Information Sciences from Tohoku University. In the meantime I worked for several Japanese companies as an intern.

After getting my Master's I moved from Tohoku to Tokyo for my PhD. I now share my time between my research and a part time job to fund my education.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I spend much of my time presenting my research in conferences, at the lab or in papers, so my most essential tools are presentation tools. I use Google Drawings to sketch diagrams, R Studio to make figures from numerical results, and Prezi to shape up oral presentations.
I am a programmer at heart, so for my research itself I make my own tools and softwares.

Twitter is a wonderful tool to keep up with the latest interesting papers being published in fields that are close to mine but that I do not follow with assiduity.

What does your workspace setup look like?
As long as I have a computer, I can work anywhere. I work mostly at the lab, which has 3 rooms. I like to use the smallest one when I really need to concentrate; the biggest one when I want to discuss with my labmates. I also sometimes work at the library, in coffee shops before going to my student job, or simply at home.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Take a step back. It is easy to get very absorbed by a project, especially when deadlines approach. I have my best ideas when I let my mind wander: while riding the bus, eating lunch or listening to someone else's ideas. When I try to be single minded and concentrate too much on a project, I loose creativity. I end up putting a lot of time and effort into things when, in retrospect, it would have been much more productive to step back and think.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I usually don't need to: the constant stream of emails and face-to-face discussions is sufficient to remind me of milestones and deadlines. I am lucky enough to have freedom in how I set my schedule. When I am really anxious about particular events, I use Google Calendar.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Not really, except when working on particular projects. For several months I wore a mini-camera that essentially recorded my day in pictures, but this project is now finished. I use my phone a lot, especially because I like to build applications that are tailored to my needs.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I am not afraid to ask questions, express my ideas or admit my ignorance to other researchers and discuss theoretical concepts. There is absolutely no gender balance in my field, I am still a student, and I am sometimes the only foreigner in the conference room, so it could be easy to feel intimidated and refrain from discussing interesting or polemic points with other researchers.

But you do not get over these specifics without having a curious, assertive personality. I love reading scientific books or papers; discussing and criticizing them makes me feel enriched with new ideas and knowledge.

What do you listen to when you work?
Nothing, except if the place is noisy. Then I just let YouTube play random songs to mask the noise.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

I read science books, science fiction books, or just fiction. But mostly I read scientific papers and the news. Since I have started working part time, I have unfortunately lost the time to read real books, or only just a few pages at a time.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?
I am an extrovert with my friends, I talk a lot and ask many questions, but I need a great amount of "alone time". An hour of interaction is usually enough to drain me, and I will need quiet time to recover. I am also really bad at interacting with several persons simultaneously. I can only focus on one or two people at a time.

What's your sleep routine like?
I normally sleep 7 to 8 hours, although I enjoy sleeping obscene amounts of time when I can afford it... When I am busy I sleep 4 or 5 hours per night, but I am not myself when I am tired.

What's your work routine like?
I don't really have a routine. I am always working on different things, there are always different events to attend to, and both my lab and my part time job have free hours. Not two days are the same, so I work as soon as I get some free time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ruytenschildt Bridge: Field and laboratory testing

We recently published a paper on the field and laboratory testing of the Ruytenschildt Bridge. This bridge was tested to failure in two spans, and then beams sawn from the bridge were tested in the lab to study the behavior further.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

A large number of existing reinforced concrete solid slab bridges in the Netherlands are found to be insufficient for shear upon assessment. However, research has shown additional sources of capacity in slab bridges, increasing their total capacity. Previous testing was limited to half-scale slab specimens cast in the laboratory. To study the full structural behavior of slab bridges, testing to failure of a bridge is necessary. In August 2014, a bridge was tested to failure in two spans. Afterwards, beams were sawn out of the bridge for experimental work in the laboratory and further study. Though calculations with current design provisions showed that the bridge could fail in shear, the field test showed failure in flexure before shear. The experiments on the beams study the transition from flexural to shear failure and the influence of the type of reinforcement on the capacity. The experimental results were compared to predictions of
the capacity for the bridge slab and the sawn beams. These comparisons show that the current methods for rating of existing reinforced concrete slab bridges, leading to a sharper assessment, are conservative. It was also found that the application of plain bars instead of deformed bars does not increase the shear
capacity of beams.

You can download the paper for free until November 12th 2016 via this link.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Surviving and thriving in academia as a young female academic

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!

As a young female academic in a male-dominated field, I sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. My goal for today is not to convince you that there is such a things as gender bias in academia. Sufficient research has proven this. An overview of all studies is here, with some recent publications here, and here , and let's not forget that, once a female academic is hired, students will give her lower ratings as well.

With that said, I don't want to discourage any young aspiring female academic. Please no, academia needs all talent on board. But you'll need to brace yourself and learn to let them haters be haters. Story of my life - and the fact that combined studies with music confused people around me even more. Like a "typical" female academic, I've had my doubts and imposter trouble. But growing into an independent scholar, in my little niche of research, has helped me put things in the right perspective. And even though I don't have a storybook resume(who goes to potter around somewhere in the Andean mountains, isolated from the rest of the research community in concrete bridges anyway?), I am content with my progress, and I'd like to believe my research is adding value to society.

So how did I come this far? How did I do my own Dr. Strangelove and learned to stop worrying about rejected papers, missed opportunities, and collaborations in which I am not involved, and love the bomb (whatever it is)? Even though I am still an early career researcher, I think there are a few pieces of advice I can give you.

1. Don't feed the trolls

At every stage of our career, there will be trolls and haters and naysayers. You'll be watched more closely than your male colleagues, and for random things like your clothing and hair and whatnot. And while I'm the last person to say I've never been offended or shocked or outraged by certain comments, I have also learned that worrying and getting angry is not going to get you anywhere. Acknowledge that it is a hater's comment, accept how you feel about it, and then move on and prove them wrong.

2. Build a community and network

Women are bad at networking, "they" say. While I generally think that dividing humans in "women do this" and "men do that" is overrated anyway, I think there are simply different networking styles. As an introvert, I'm not the type of person to barge into people and wave my business card in front of their nose. But I do genuinely care about the work of other people, and I enjoy a good research discussion like any other good ole nerd. I frankly don't think you need to suit up and shake hands all the time to build a community. You can have one-on-one conversations with other researchers at conferences (just ask someone who looks a bit lost what brought him/her to the conference and what he/she is working on). You can use online tools to reach out to other researchers and share information. There are plenty of ways to get in touch with fellow scholars.

3. Find ways to reach out

In line with my previous recommendation, find ways that work for you to reach out to fellow scholars, the industry and/or the broader public. How about starting a blog about your research? Or contact the organizer of podcasts to talk about your work? Or write a guest post for an existing blog, if the idea of maintaining a blog by yourself seems to be a bit too time-consuming (I love hosting guest writers)? In which medium does your voice resonate? Find your voice, and don't be afraid of letting it sound.

4. Volunteer

Along with different styles of building community come different styles of contributing. I tend to be quiet in meetings, and speak few sentences if I have an opinion that needs to be voiced. But I contribute in my way, by volunteering when work needs to be done. Yes, your research and papers are important, and need a lot of your time, but showing up and doing work in different communities (university committees, technical committees, organizing events for your research group) will help you develop skills you will need in your future career. Don't be shy and raise your hand.

5. Don't drop the ball

Disclaimer: I don't want to worsen anybody's perfectionism here. But: don't drop the ball on work you take on. If you raise your hand, make sure you can deliver on time. Because then the haters will come and double hate. So while this advice might sound as if you have to work double as hard to show that you are a legit researcher, I think a lot comes down to managing your time and making smart choices and generally kicking arse.

6. Critique your own biases

When you think a female researcher comes along as uncertain, immature, poorly dressed or whatever thought might pop into your head, acknowledge your cultural conditioning. And then send it to Pluto. The times won't change if women themselves get stuck in thinking less about other women.

7. Pay it forward

And until the times will have changed, you can pay it forward and help the careers of fellow female researchers. If you're asked to suggest reviewers, see if you can bring some diversity in your nominations. If you see a female student doubting her abilities, talk to her. If you see a female graduate student doubting about whether or not she is PhD material, address her concerns. In the end, our research communities will function better if we can get all talent aboard, and if nobody falls off the wagon for not being the right gender (or race for that matter).

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I am Carolyn Harris and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Carolyn Harris for the "How I Work" series. Carolyn completed her PhD in European history at Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada in 2012. She is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada (Dundurn, 2015), Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting (Dundurn Press, 2017). Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada spent a week on the Globe and Mail Canadian non-fiction bestseller list and Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe received the 2016 Royal Studies Network book award for best book on the history of monarchy. Her writing concerning history and royalty has appeared in a variety of publications including The Globe and Mail, National Post and Ottawa Citizen newspapers, BBC News, Canada’s History and Smithsonian magazines and she frequently provides royal commentary for TV and radio. She is a contributor to a variety of public history projects including Magna Carta Canada and The Canadian Encyclopedia and provide guest lectures for a variety of venues including libraries, museums and cruise ships. She blogs about history and royalty at

Current Job: Historian and Author
Current Location: Toronto
Current mobile device: Alcatel One Touch 6040A (Android)
Current computer: ASUS Zenbook UX305C

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am currently researching and writing my 3rd book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, which will be published by Dundurn Press in the Spring of 2017. I recently finished teaching a course about Imperial Spain at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies and will be teaching another course, Richard III: Monstrous or Misunderstood? in the fall of 2016.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

I use Microsoft Word for writing projects. I have found Word to be a useful tool for developing articles and book chapters but it is less effective for whole book manuscripts and I am researching alternatives for future book projects.

I use a WordPress platform for my website and publicize my writing on a variety of social media platforms including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Goodreads.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I do most of my writing and teaching preparation in the home office. I have a compact white desk, lots of bookcases and a laser printer. There is a laser printer/scanner on top of my filing cabinet, which is especially useful for scanning signed contracts and invoices for freelance work. When I am working on a book project, the desk is often piled high with books and other research materials.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

My best advice would be to structure the workday around tasks completed rather than hours. Every day, I set particular tasks to complete. As I am currently working on a book manuscript, my weekday tasks include writing a certain number of words per day. This approach allows for flexibility concerning when the work is completed and provides motivation for working efficiently.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

For tracking my freelance writing projects and invoices, I use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, organized by month and year. I have columns listing the date, sponsoring organization, fee and description for each project, accompanied by columns labeled “Submitted?” “Published?” “Invoiced?” and “Paid?” This system allows me to easily track my deadlines and follow up on late payments.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have an iPod touch that I use for listening to music and podcasts. There are number of podcasts that I particularly enjoy including This American Life, BBC World Service documentaries, Great Lives and In Our Time.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

My ability to write and lecture about a variety of different topics related to my expertise. PhDs often encourage narrow specialization but my dissertation compared the role of the queen during the English Civil Wars and French Revolution, events that took place in different countries during different centuries. I have applied my interest in the role of women in royal courts to a variety of academic and popular writing projects. For example, I wrote an article about “The Political Significance of Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaevna (1895-1918)” for Canadian Slavonic Papers in 2012 and a chapter about Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise and her time in Canada entitled “Royalty at Rideau Hall” for a book about Canada and the Crown.

What do you listen to when you work?
Lots of different types of music. When I’m writing, I enjoy folk rock. I listen to a lot of Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
In addition to history books related to my research, writing and teaching, I like to have a novel and a work of non-fiction (such as a popular history, biography or travel book) on the go at all times. I am currently reading Louis de Bernières’s historical novel about the First World War, The Dust That Falls from Dreams and David McCullough’s history of the construction of the Panama Canal, The Path Between The Seas. I often read in the evenings or while commuting on public transit to lectures.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

According to the quiz in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I am an ambivert, a personality type that includes both extrovert and introvert qualities. I am happy both spending long hours in solitude research and writing a book manuscript and traveling to museums, libraries and bookstores to sign books and meet with readers.

What's your sleep routine like?

My sleep routine is highly variable depending on my work schedule. For example, I recently provided historical commentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News Channel and the CTV News Channel about the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday in April and June 2016. On those days, I woke up at 4:30am in order to be in the studio by 6am. In contrast, when I gave lectures at Fort York in Toronto about Magna Carta in the fall of 2015, my talks were at 2pm and 8pm so I slept later in the mornings to ensure that I was energetic for public speaking and book signing in the evenings.

What's your work routine like?

I start by making tea. If I am working from home, I sip different types of loose leaf tea all day while writing. I’ve accumulated quite a collection of different black, green, white, rooibos and herbal teas. Then, I take care of e-mail and publicizing newly published articles on social media. I spend most of the day writing or preparing for teaching. I also travel to give guest lectures. I try to restrict writing/teaching preparation to weekdays but that’s not always possible if I have a lot of deadlines around the same time.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Seize the opportunities that come your way! Since completing my PhD in 2012, my career has gone in unexpected and interesting directions. I have had the opportunity to contribute expertise to the media, write books, travel across Canada on a cross-country book tour promoting my first book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada, and give history lectures on cruise ships sailing around Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I am Seán Mac Fhearraigh and This is How I Work

Today I am interviewing Seán Mac Fhearraigh, PhD in the "How I Work" series. Seán was a PhD student at University College Dublin & a post-doc a Cambridge University where he studied mechanisms of cell division. Currently Seán run’s an ELISA assay company where you can find some great information on ELISA assay protocols and ELISA kits.

Current Job: co-founder of
Current Location: Dublin, Ireland
Current mobile device: iPhone 6s
Current computer: Dell

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

Recently I've started a biotech company selling ELISA assays and cell tools, before that I was a PhD and Post-Doc for over 6 years. I carried out a PhD in regulation of cell death during mitosis and carried on to a post-doc at Cambridge University looking at regulation of microtubule attachment.

Now I am setting up a Biotech company, I'm a marketer, website developer, sales rep and designer all in one. However, my PhD really helped me with the logical brain to promote these skills and the approach to learning new skills.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Wordpress - we're building the whole site on this platform. If you're starting off a website, it's a great place to start. More recently we've started to use to outsource some of the tech work we can't do. If you're a student and are having problems with data, excel, or programming, this could be a great resource to find someone to cheaply help you.

What does your workspace setup look like?
So at the moment it's a mix between the office and home. Since I am in charge of the website and development, I try and stay away from the distractions of the lab and focus on working on the site. During my PhD I wrote up my thesis at home. I found doing a mix of both can really help. Finding two spots to work that keep you motivated is better than one.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
I'm a big believer in starting work early, 9 am if you can. This sets up the day with the right focus.

I also think exercise is a great motivator for work and can help you work through your problems without staring at a screen and provide a great hormonal boost to keep you motivated. It also reduces your stress levels.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I try and keep it simple and do one thing at a time. Recently met with a colleague who provided an example of how multitasking can really slow down your work rather than speed it up. Since then I have been one task at a time.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Fortunately, not, giving yourself some device-free time is a better tool than any.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

I wasn't a great academic, but I did read a lot of papers - probably more papers than I should have. I think this helped me a lot with thinking about the problems I had. It also helped me keep up to date with competing labs and techniques that I could be working on. A great example of that was my boss in Cambridge, she was a great reader and journal clubs were a real insight into her detailed knowledge of the area. No wonder she had Science and Nature papers.

What do you listen to when you work?

I do listen to a lot of podcasts when travelling, but nothing at work. At the moment I'm a big Gary Vaynerchuk fan, he is great at providing motivation for people in all sectors and I can resonate to what he says as a scientists. i.e work hard and you’ll get there.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

At the moment I'm reading “A random walk down Wall street”, it’s about the stock market, but gives a great insight to markets, which has a lot of parallels in the scientific world. People concentrating too much on one idea, resulting in people losing originality, which can be detrimental to the market and in this case scientific ideas.

I think it’s important to read: bus, train, lunch break I try and have a book with me.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am ENTJ according to Briggs-Myers test, which means I'm an extrovert - wouldn't have thought so, but the test says I am. I think it helps when I meet new customers and scientists at conferences. I always like asking people about their work so being an extrovert removes some of the shyness when walking over to introduce myself.

What's your sleep routine like?
8 hours every night. Can't live without them.

What's your work routine like?
At the moment, 9 – 5 pm, then 8 till late. If I get time at the weekends a few hours too.

What's the best advice you ever received?
My favourite quote is “He who says he can and he who says he cannot are both usually right!” I found it in a youtube video under “why do we fail”, best line I've ever heard.