Thursday, February 21, 2008

Faculty Candidate Interviews

One of the more interesting things the Physics & Astronomy Department at GMU does is get students involved with the hiring of faculty. Last Spring and again this month, I have been on the student committee responsible for interviewing the short list of candidates for new teaching positions. We go to seminars the candidates are giving at GMU, then participate in an hour-long, student-only interview session with the candidate. After seeing all the candidates, the student committee (about 4-6 of us) sends in our collective commentary on each one, along with our hiring priority preference (including any opinion against hiring). The hiring committee takes the recommendations of the student committee very seriously - the last few times they have given the first offer to the students' first choice (and they never offer a job to someone the students say not to hire, even if the other candidates all turn down offers).

Last year's candidates were not too exciting for me - largely based on fields in physics (including neuroscience) where I had little interest and less knowledge (or maybe vice-versa). This year, however, the candidates are all in the field of planetary science, which is awesome.

Our first candidate presented some current research based on magnetic fields (called crustal fields) on the surface of Mars. This is new research, as the mission responsible for gathering the data is still orbiting the planet. He was very excited about his topic and a good speaker. Even better, based on our interview of him later on, he seems like he would be an interesting and engaging professor for freshman and sophomore students, especially those not already in a science field (hopefully getting them to choose a science major).

The second candidate was a letdown from the first. His research, on the possibility of earth-like planets in stable, habitable obits around binary stars, was fairly interesting (and the models of how planets may be forming in those systems pretty cool), but he definitely lacked the excitement value of the first one. His interview did not improve matters. We rate him a distant last place.

Today's candidate discussed the current mission around Titan (and various other Saturnian moons) and the fact that, instead of finding 300m of methane seas around the whole planet, they found sand dunes! There seems to be a lot of methane missing and they are trying to figure out where it went (including the most obvious conclusion - the models are broken). He was an engaging speaker (after a shaky start) and very personable. I had lunch with him and several other faculty members and my opinion only improved. We feel he would be a decent teacher (he does not have the experience the first one does) and an incredible research advisor. I'd say he is either tied for first or a very close second place.

The final candidate will do his schtick next week (Monday or Tuesday - I'd better check). I almost hope he's not quite as good as the two we already like - it isn't too useful to send the hiring committee a recommendation to hire 3 of the 4 people they sent us (when just getting 1 of them will be tough).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

PhD Comics

One of the more interesting comic sites I have been redirected to (this one from the Bad Astronomer) was to PhD Comics, a strip devoted to the life of a grad student. From what I have seen, PhD is, like Dilbert, all too accurate, even where it seems like it should be hyperbole. I find it very humorous, even though it makes me worry about my own potential future as a grad student!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is a weekly podcast by Fraser Cain (of Universe Today) and Pamela Gay (from SIUE). They cover all aspects of the universe from just above our atmosphere to far, far away, from the very beginning to the theorized end. A tour of our Solar system. Dark Energy. Birth of the Universe, Galaxies, Stars, Black Holes. Tidal forces. Relativity. Monster telescopes. No astronomical topic is too large, too small or too complex for them to handle.

Each episode is about 30 minutes long. The format is very easy to listen to - Fraser and Pamela essentially have a conversation about the current week's topic. In general, he asks questions and she answers them using very little jargon - no math (well, not counting the Drake Equation episode)! Occasionally, Fraser will branch off and try to rephrase an answer in a different mode to give users another chance at understanding some of the really complex issues they ably handle. Pamela is a master at getting across astrophysical concepts without coming across as talking down to anyone. Additionally, she has one of the most awesome speaking voices I have heard in many years. I could listen to her for hours in a lecture hall (come to GMU and guest lecture, Pamela!).

I have listened to all 76 episodes (plus a few bonus tracks) to date and it sits at the top of my list - if there is an Astronomy Cast episode to hear, it doesn't matter what I am in the middle of listening to, I switch to that.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Change of Pace

In an attempt to have something to post more than two or three times a semester (since it's rarely exciting to hear me talk about individual class sessions), I am going to branch out a bit. Given that there are maybe 3 people in the world who read this (including me!), I suspect nobody will much mind.

Future posts, in addition to normal school stuff, may include podcast reviews, cool viral videos and anything else I feel like posting. Why not? It's my time.