Mission Dissertation

A sustainable engineering production.

That time of year August 29, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 3:50 am

Tomorrow is the first day of the fall semester. This semester I have two classes, three research meetings, and a departmental seminar. Those weekly engagements are the least of my worries, however. Ranking higher on the list is my dissertation proposal to defend in the fall and my dissertation to finish writing and then defend in the spring. I am also applying to a long list of fellowships, post-docs (academic apprenticeships), and <gasp> potential faculty positions.

In addition to working furiously on my proposal and dissertation, I have lately been reflecting on the many paths I’ve walked and on what paths lie ahead. I have been immersed in academia for eight years now (ten, if you count my two interim appointments between college and graduate school), and while I am reasonably certain academia is the path on which I will continue, I still want to give every suitable employment/career option reasonable consideration. The only thing I know for certain is I will not go into industry.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to return to the present moment — this evening before the “first day of school” — and list a few goals for myself this semester:

1. Get A’s in both of my classes (obviously).
2. Dedicate a three-hour block every day to my dissertation. If this needs to be between the hours of 4 and 7 am, so be it. Of course I will also work on smaller chunks throughout the rest of the day, but those quiet morning hours are always my most productive.
3. Write my teaching philosophy. I have collected several “stubs” over the past few years; it is now time to flesh those out.
4. Submit fellowship and post-doc applications by November; faculty applications by December.
5. Do whatever it takes to get six hours of sleep every night. Any fewer than six hours and I might as well not sleep at all. Any more than six hours and I may not finish everything I need to do.
6. Maintain my yoga and meditation practices. Potentially volunteer at the local bike co-op.
7. Involve myself in engineering and/or other CV-worthy community service activities. This shouldn’t be as tricky as it is. On the one hand, I am very much involved in the local community, but none of that work fits on an academic CV. On the other hand, service opportunities do arise in my department, but they almost always occur at the worst times possible. Therefore, I want to seek out more CV-worthy service opportunities this semester [without the sole intention being to enhance my CV.]
8. Strike a balance between isolation and campus/social overload. In some ways, this is a given for anyone writing a dissertation. You have to isolate yourself in order to accomplish the monumental task before you. However, knowing that I have the dangerous gift of thriving in isolation means that I must also take responsibility for balancing the load.
9. [Insert a million other, smaller goals here.]
10. Prepare for defense and graduation in the spring.

These goals may change during the semester, but still offer a point from which to start. To any of you academics out there: what are some of your primary goals for this term? Do you typically set goals or do you have a more “go-with-the-flow” type of approach?


Honoring Roots & Branching Outward August 5, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 1:02 am

There comes a point at which we must allow the world to change us or we must change how we interact with the world. I reached one of those points this summer. I used to craft the story of what it meant to be an engineer by sharing my experiences of building water filtration systems in rural Honduran communities. I spoke of contaminated water, of missed educational opportunities, of gender equality. I recounted stories and statistics, I shared photos and plans. Even without describing the technical details, people understood what my Engineers Without Borders teammates and I were doing in Honduras. It was physical. It was visceral. It was in the name of “good”.

Things are different now. I have shifted my research emphasis from water system design to sugarcane ethanol production. Physically, it is a large shift (from water to land), yet conceptually, the shift is actually quite small. Both topics still rely heavily on system design, as well as sustainability analyses. While the context has changed, the mode of analysis has largely remained the same.

But how do I tell the story of ethanol as passionately as I told the story of water?  Ethanol is not visceral like clean water is visceral — people do not die from a lack of clean ethanol, ethanol is not a human right — however, ethanol is key to balancing the world’s food and fuel supplies. When done sustainably, ethanol production can help build a clean energy economy and create “green” jobs. When done sustainably, ethanol can bring wealth and prestige to the producing nation — without compromising environmental integrity or social welfare.

Ethanol — not corn-based, but the Brazilian sugarcane-based variety — is already a relatively sustainable fuel, though it is far from perfect. If we can quantify sugarcane ethanol’s current level of sustainability, then we can target areas of potential improvement throughout its life cycle. Since Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugarcane ethanol, process improvements made in Brazil can lead to significant impacts around the world.

This scenario lightly sketches the context in which I write my dissertation. In my dissertation, I use mapping systems (i.e. GIS) and sustainability analysis tools (i.e. LCA) to evaluate regional land use impacts of sugarcane ethanol production in São Paulo, Brazil. I model crop growth and life-cycle emissions, then use these models to predict future environmental impacts of sugarcane expansion. Previous LCA researchers have modelled some of these processes on a global scale. I am now integrating geographic information systems to provide more accurate analyses at the regional level.

In writing this blog, I hope to find new ways of describing my research without oversimplifying the data. I want to understand the data so thoroughly that I can tell ethanol and bioenergy stories as passionately as I told stories of clean water. To that end, I invite your questions, provocations, and inspirations. Please leave me a comment!

The blog format will likely be a mix of narratives, progress logs, and reflections on the PhD (pre-post-doc) experience. If you would like me to write about a particular [relevant] topic, feel free to leave me a note. If it’s interesting and I have time, you may just get your wish!

In closing, a few words of wisdom from former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (borrowed from this week’s ASCE e-newsletter): “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

Be well & be inspired.