Thursday, March 23, 2017

The adventures of a concrete researcher - or how I ended up breaking bridges for a living

I recently gave a presentation to the ACI Student Chapter of Universidad San Francisco de Quito. They asked me to tell something accessible about doing experiments, so I decided to chronicle my journey to the work that I am currently carrying out.

Here are the slides of the presentation:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I am Vincent Peters, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Vincent Peters. Vincent is a 25-year-old PhD student at the department of Management at Tilburg University. He has started his PhD in May 2016 and is specialized in the area of healthcare chains. He has both a MSc (with honor) as well as a BSc in Organisation Science from Tilburg University and completed an Exchange Program at Hanken Svenska Handelshogskolan, Helsinki. Also, he participates in Tranzo, the Tilburg interfaculty research program on health care, to investigate integrated care.

Current Job: PhD Student
Current Location: Tilburg, The Netherlands
Current mobile device: iPhone 5S
Current computer: Macbook Air 13 inch

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

I am full time employed at the department of Management of Tilburg School of Economics and Management at Tilburg University. My research focuses on improving collaboration and coordination between service providers in a healthcare chain for people with a complex disease (e.g. down syndrome, oncology, dementia). I make use of the lens of service modularity in order to tackle this problem.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Outlook, Excel & Word are essential. Skype also comes in quite handy.

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?
I do have a fixed workspace at my university and a home office, however I prefer to work at my university office. It’s a great office with a lovely view, since I am located at the 11th floor of our building. I have a computer with double screen and a desk + cabin. I share my office with 1 colleague, however she is not always present at the office.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Make sure to block certain timeslots in your calendar for academic work. Turn of your phone and what else can distract you and just focus. Also, your brain tends to focus best on the things you do first, so plan academic work before answering your email.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Everything I do is marked in my Outlook calendar, so that’s what keeps an overview for me. I also have a whiteboard on which I mark all deadline dates.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I do have an Apple Watch which I both use for work and daily life in order to get into shape and make sure I burn enough calories during the day for example. Furthermore, I have an Apple TV for streaming Netflix etc. Sometimes it also comes in handy to stream my Macbook Air on a bigger screen to understand a model better and take a step back.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

My perseverance and the fact that I can switch fairly quickly between subjects (In Dutch we call this competence ‘Snel kunnen schakelen’ however I cannot find the right translation). I have a good sense of balance between practical and theoretical subjects.

What do you listen to when you work?
Depends on my mood, but mostly classical music (e.g. Ludovico Einaudi) or Techno livesets from Soundcloud.

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

Currently I’m reading the book of Max Verstappen (MAX), the world’s youngest Formula 1 race winner. Most of the times I read books from authors like David Baldacci, Dan Brown. I am mostly interested in American politics, advocacy, law and regulations and organizations like CIA, NASA.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?

I’m more of an introvert, I hardly talk about my inner emotions with someone else. I have a strong feeling I should do this more often but I find it hard to find the right people to share these emotions with. It does not really influence my working habits, I think. Feelings with regard to work I almost immediately share, sometimes to quick even.

What's your sleep routine like?
I try to sleep around 23.30 and wake up most of the time around 07.15. I aim to have at least 8 hours of sleep but it seems like I function better with 7 hours of sleep. I always feel sleepy when I sleep 8 or more hours.

What's your work routine like?
I try to start work at 08.00 and finish somewhere around 17.00’ish, depending on how the day goes. I feel lucky with the fact that academic work does not have the usual 09.00-17.00 working days.

What's the best advice you ever received?

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you land among the stars. I think this was one of the best advices I ever get. Always aim high and see where you end up. If you aim for the low hanging fruit, it was probably too easy in the end.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Transverse load redistribution and effective shear width in reinforced concrete slabs

We recently published a paper titled "Transverse load redistribution and effective shear width in reinforced concrete slabs" in the journal Heron. Heron is a free, open access journal, managed and organized by volunteers of Delft University of Technology and TNO.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

In slabs subjected to concentrated loads close to the support, shear is verified for two limit states: beam shear over an effective width, and punching shear on a perimeter around the concentrated load. In current practice, the beam shear strength of slabs is calculated as for beams, and thus the beneficial effects of transverse load redistribution in slabs are not considered. An experimental program was conducted at Delft University of Technology to determine the shear capacity of slabs under concentrated loads close to the support. This paper presents the results of the tests conducted on continuous slabs and slab strips. The influence of the loading sequence, size of the loaded area, moment distribution at the support and distance between the load and the support is studied and discussed with regard to the behaviour in slabs and slab strips. It is recommended to use the effective width based on a load spreading method as used in French practice. This recommendation is based on the experimental results, a statistical analysis and non-linear finite element models. The parameter analyses show an increased capacity in slabs as compared to beams as the result of transverse load distribution. The shear capacity of slabs under concentrated loads close to supports can be calculated based on the Eurocode provisions for shear over the recommended effective width.

You can access the full text of the paper here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

I'm Alayna Cole and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting Alayna Cole to the "How I Work" series. Alayna is a doctoral candidate in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) and a lecturer in Serious Games at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She has broad research interests, but she is primarily focused on creating and analysing narratives that improve diverse representation, particularly of gender and sexuality. Her doctoral thesis—entitled Queerly Ever After—comprises a collection of reimagined fairy tales that seek to incorporate plurisexual perspectives.

Current Job: Games writer and academic (among others)
Current Location: Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
Current mobile device: iPhone SE smart phone
Current computer: Toshiba Satellite laptop

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am (technically) 18 months into my Doctorate of Creative Arts (Creative Writing), and I am researching representations of sexuality and gender in fairy tales. My research output comprises a creative artefact and an accompanying exegesis. While my doctoral work is in the field of creative writing, I lecture in serious game design, and my publications and conference presentations at this stage have been in both the creative writing and game studies disciplines.

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

My system is fairly stripped back. I use Microsoft Word for writing and EndNote for keeping track of my citations, as well as a notebook and pen for jotting down ideas. I’m the sort of person who structures her thesis by moving post-it notes around on the floor. I occasionally use Pomodoro apps or websites to assist with focus on days that are all about my doctorate; one I have recently found helpful is called ‘Forest’.

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?
I generally work from home. My desk is organised chaos most of the time, but all of my books and research are in one place here. When I’m not working at home, I work at the Engage Lab at the University of the Sunshine Coast. It’s definitely not a ‘typical’ lab and I love its creative atmosphere. Depending on where I’m up to with my creative artefact or research, I might take my notebook or readings out to the park, on public transport, or to some other random location; a change of pace can shake things up.

Here you can see my home workspace and lab. The photo of my lab was taken during a Women in Games afternoon that I helped organise, so the place is bustling!

home office

Engage lab

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

This is a tricky one! It’s about figuring out how you work best. I edit better in the morning and when it’s quiet, but I write better at night with some background noise. I also work best when I have small, realistic goals and I’ve written them down in a clear to-do list; it can be easy to get overwhelmed with a research project the size of a doctorate if you don’t break it up.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I used to have my doctoral thesis spread across a lot of different Word documents, but I’ve recently compiled them into one file and have it very clearly marked with comments and headings. I use a handwritten diary to keep track of other research, deadlines, conferences, meetings, and so on. I also use Trello sometimes, particularly for collaborative projects.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?

That’s basically it, to be honest! I was also using a digital tablet earlier on in my process to read and highlight research papers and books, as I was starting to go cross-eyed staring at so many pdfs on my computer screen.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

Probably my organisation. It helps me prioritise, and ensures I am working efficiently and strategically. It is helping immensely with my doctorate, as well as the other research and publications I am working on, and I think it will continue to aid me throughout my academic career.

What do you listen to when you work?
If anything, I tend to rely on instrumental music from videogame soundtracks. The OSTs of Bastion, Transistor, Journey, The Witcher 3, and Undertale are some personal favourites.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I’m currently reading novels that are contributing to my doctorate’s literature review or my other creative writing publications. It helps me find time to read when I know it’s actually work! I haven’t read anything that isn’t directly related to my research for a while, partially because I am trying to hold onto a particular creative voice that I don’t want muddied by the different styles of other authors. I’m looking forward to getting back into reading for pleasure.

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

I am fairly introverted. I guess it means that I’m rarely distracted by social influences, but also means I can have a pretty negative work/life balance. Still, I make sure I visit friends sometimes, and I limit my work while they’re around. I also have regular videogame nights on Thursdays to keep myself sane.

What's your sleep routine like?

It varies depending on what I’m working on. Late nights while I’m writing, early mornings while I’m editing, and often my teaching schedule dictates when I have to sleep. I like working late into the night though, when I can, as I often seem to be more productive then.

What's your work routine like?
It changes depending on what I have on my to-do list and the deadlines that are coming up. I don’t keep any sort of 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday working-hour system. I work nights and weekends a lot, but it means I can take time off to rest and think when I need it during the week. It also depends on my teaching schedule, which changes each semester.

What's the best advice you ever received?
An academic career is all about strategy. There are a lot of different ways to approach all aspects of it—doctorate, publications, conferences, teaching, etc.—but some methods make your research work for you more effectively and efficiently than others. As for what those methods are? It takes talking to people and experimenting to figure that out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Papers at SEMC 2016

This year, I was author and co-author of three papers at SEMC 2016, the conference on Structural Engineering, Mechanics and Computation in Cape Town, South Africa. While I did not have the chance to travel, my students Mr. Valdivieso and Mr. Mejia traveled to present their thesis work, and Dr. van der Veen traveled to present our co-authored paper.

The abstract of mr. Mejia's paper is:

Throughout history invasive methods for analyzing deflections and deformations have been used in concrete structures at the laboratory, but the advancement of technology has allowed the development of new non-invasive alternative methods such as digital image correlation (DIC). With this technique, it is possible to obtain information about the deflections, strains and strain fields in a structure. The current study consists of performing a flexural test on plain concrete beams and concrete arches reinforced with FRP rein-forcement. All tests were recorded with a cheap, small camera, then transferred into a series of images in or-der to apply the digital image correlation technique. The analysis with DIC results in the displacements, strains and strain fields of the surface under analysis. Finally, the percentage of error between the displace-ment derived from the DIC technique and the displacement measured by Linear Variable Differential Trans-formers (LVDTs) is calculated. In conclusion, the study shows that it was not possible to reach accuracy on the values of deflections and strains by the applied method and that a higher-speed camera is necessary to capture the moment of failure.

The abstract of mr. Valdivieso's paper is:

A large number of existing bridges in Europe and North-America are reaching the end of their devised service life. Therefore, it is necessary to improve the methods of assessment for existing bridges. One method, suitable for existing reinforced concrete slab bridges, is the Modified Bond Model. This method, however, currently only takes the effect of torsion for loads close to the edge into account in a simplified manner. In this study, finite element models are created of a slabs with two supports, three concentrated (pre-stressing) loads and a distributed load, representing a truck wheel print. The load is varied along the longitu-dinal and transverse directions of the slab to find the bending moments (mx and my) and torsional moments (mxy). The results is an expression for the effect of torsion in slabs, which can be used with the Modified Bond Model for assessment and design of slab bridges.

The abstract of the paper of which I am first author is:

For the assessment of existing structures and the design of new structures, it is important to have a good understanding of the flow of forces, here applied to reinforced concrete solid slabs. Two analyti-cal methods are used: finite element models with 3D solid elements and a plasticity-based model that is suita-ble for hand calculations, the Modified Bond Model. The slabs that are modeled are half-scale models of rein-forced concrete solid slab bridges. As the Eurocode live load model prescribes more heavily loaded trucks in the first lane, the load model is asymmetric. For the finite element models, limited use is made of the redistri-bution capacity of the slab. For the Modified Bond Model, the influence of torsion and the edge effect need to be taken into account. The results of these studies improve the current state-of-the-art for analysis and design of reinforced concrete slabs.

Here are the slides of my paper:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Q&A: Where should I do my PhD?

I recently received the following question (edited for anonimity):

Hi Eva
Hope u r doing well..?
Recently got 2 offers for Ph.D program, one from University Nr 1 in Australia and the other from University Nr 2 in New Zealand with Full Funding.
In march 2016, i had sent an email to the professor from University Nr 3 in the USA requesting him to take me as a Ph.D student in the department of SomeKindOf Sciences. After 5 months he replied to me asking to submit application as soon as possible for Spring 2017 bcoz he is fully ready to take me as a Ph.D student in his department. I have submitted my application for Ph.D program under his Supervision.
Now, my question is which country i should select among these 3 countries, i am in confusion right now..?? Please do suggest. Thank u so much..!!

Here's my answer:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reaching out to me through my blog.

As I understand it, you have the choice between 3 universities for your PhD, and one of them is fully funded? In that case, I’d say, go for the fully funded option. If all of them are funded, I’d recommend you to pick the project that you feel most excited about – 3 or 4 years can be a long time. The university itself does not matter that much – as long as you publish and get the chance to travel to a few conferences, the ranking of your university is not that important.

Another element to consider: if you are planning to move to the USA long-term, the school in the USA might be your best pick.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTranfer: How to find focused flow

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!

Today, I want to talk about the state of focused flow. Have you experienced the type of deep concentration, where you simply work without getting distracted, and the rest of the world ceases to exist? Maybe you've experienced this sensation while reading a book, or while being fully engaged in a computer game. Perhaps you have experienced this feeling while studying for an exam and working through examples. Most of us are familiar with this feeling. Bringing back this state of focused flow when working on your research can be a bit more challenging, especially for PhD students faced with the daunting task of working on a research project for three, four, or more years.

Don't worry that you won't be able to get the feeling of focused flow ever back when you struggle with concentration. A meditation teacher once told me that the state of focused flow is always there. You can compare this state of our mind to a clear sky. When we have difficulties concentrating, our thoughts are like clouds that prevent us from seeing the clear sky. However, all we need to do is to clear away the clouds, and we will have access again to the state of focused flow.

Leaving aside the philosophical musings about our mind, and how it can get muddled, there are practical steps you can take to work in a more concentrated way. Here are some suggestions for you to try out when you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of the internet afternoon after afternoon:

1. Planning
In Dutch, we have a saying "goed begonnen is half gewonnen", which means something like "if you start well, you've already won half". For research, a good start is a planning of the work you need to do. I've extensively written about the topic of planning, including using smaller time blocks to fit in all my tasks, and tips for productive planning. For a given day, you should know what you need to be doing, and how much time you are expecting each of these tasks to take. You will be less likely to drift off if you only have an hour each day to work on a given task and then need to move on to the next topic, than when you set aside a few consecutive days to work on a single topic only (because, for example, the deadline is approach). So plan ahead of time to make sure you can meet your deadlines, and work in short chunks of time on a given topic.

2. Clear goals
Along with good planning comes knowing exactly what you need to do. Don't tell yourself that you will write on your paper between 8 am and 10 am. Instead, set a goal for this chunk of time. For example, aim at adding 1000 words to the draft, or make two drawings. Once it is clear for your mind what exactly needs to be done, you'll be less likely to start procrastinating.

3. Pomodoro
The pomodoro technique consists of using a timer to time 25 minutes, and then you are allowed a 5 minute break. During the 25 minutes, you are allowed to work only on your task. No internet browsing, no phone calls - if you do get interrupted, your pomodoro is considered invalid, and you need to start over again. After three or four pomodoros, a longer break of about 30 minutes is recommended. When 25 minutes of concentrating seems too long for you, you can start with smaller time increments. The pomodoro technique is ideal to help you plow through tedious tasks, or to motivate you during writing.

4. Real breaks

When you decide to take a break, make it count. Don't just sit and browse the internet for the umptieth time. Read a book, do some drawing, have a cup of tea, go outside for some fresh air - whatever you need to break away from your task and refresh your mind. You'll feel more alert and with better concentration after a conscious break than when you just spend it liking your friends' pictures on facebook.

5. Know when to stop
If a day is not going well, don't force yourself to stay late and make up for the damage done during the day. Leave work as it is, and go do something fun and refreshing, knowing that you can revisit the problem the next day. Of course, I'm not giving you here a license to postpone everything always to tomorrow! The key here is to be honest with yourself. If you're having a bad day, chances are that your heavy number crunching research is not going to come together.

6. Ask yourself why you are drifting off

With being honest to yourself also comes to ability to learn why you have difficulties concentrating. I've written down an analysis of an afternoon when I had difficulties concentrating. When you find yourself fighting the urge to go and check your favorite news website about every 10 minutes, you should ask yourself why today you are having such an uphill battle? Is it because you are not feeling well? Then revisit point 5, and take a break. Is it because you don't have clear goals? Is it because you are forcing yourself on the same task for too much time? Figure out what is hampering you, and take this lesson for the future.

7. Clear away distractions
You won't be able to concentrate if you have your smartphone within reach, and the thing is buzzing and beeping and lighting up all the time. If your cellphone distracts you, lock it down in the cupboard or place it in your backpack, in silent mode. If there's too much noise, clear away the noise with headphones (I recommend noise-canceling headphones, if you can fork out the money for buying them). Close your door, let down the curtains, disconnect from the internet, clear away all unnecessary items from your desk - take whatever action needed to get everything out of the way that could distract you.

8. Enable getting into the zone
With all distractions out of your way, set yourself up for success. Analyze what works for you in terms of getting you into your deep concentration. I wrote about what works for me. Currently, if I am committed to working on a task with my full concentration, I will open all the files I need, and close all files and programs that I don't need. Depending on what I am working on, I may put a pen and a writing pad next to my keyboard. I will start tracking my words with the PhDometer if the task involves writing. I place my noise-canceling headphones on my head and start playing music. Finally, I hit the start button for a pomodoro and give it my full concentration. Know what your rituals for concentrated work are, and honor them - they will help you get going when the going is tough.

9. Mindfulness training

Mindfulness training helps for being able to concentrate. Admittedly, I'm always on and off with my own practice. Sometimes, I'll hit a 30 day meditation streak, and then I'll go to a conference, fall out of my regular schedule, and will have a hard time building up my habit again. Just know and acknowledge that mindfulness is a tool that you have if you need to train your mind.

10. Plan according to your body

Do you tend to get sleepy after lunch? Then don't plan your heavy number-crunching research in those hours. Know which times of the day are suitable for which tasks, and plan your days accordingly. Don't try to force your way through when your body is feeling sluggish - be smart with how you spend your energy.

11. Sleep
You can't concentrate if you are tired. If you are tired because your schoolwork is taking too much time, you need to change your way of studying - your current method is a downward spiral. Focus on deliberate practice - find the parts of your material that are hard to master, and focus your attention and energy on the hard work. Don't spend too much time dabbling in easy material. By all means, make sleep one of your non-negotiable priorities. If you can't find the time for enough sleep, you need to have a good look at your schedule, and decide which tasks are not a priority - your sleep, on the other hand, is always a priority.

12. Exercise
Feeling sluggish and having a hard time to concentrate? Exercise can work wonders. If you have control over your schedule, and you start to have a hard time concentrating in the middle of the afternoon, you may want to go for a run or pump some iron, and then return to your task with renewed energy.

13. Food
Nobody can survive on just pizza and soft drinks alone. Well technically, you can survive, but you won't be functioning at your best. Eat proper and nutritious meals, that can fuel you throughout the day. Beware of the spikes and crashes of energy that sugar gives you. Don't overdo the coffee - it will just make you jittery at some point. Consider your body a machine, and make the conscious choice to pour in premium fuel for optimal performance.

14. Practice and start small
If you are currently struggling to concentrate, not sleeping enough, and living on microwaveable mac and cheese, don't expect to change overnight. Take small steps towards a clearer mind, fueled by a healthier body. In terms of concentrating at work, practice. Don't give up if you try the pomodoro technique one day and it doesn't work for you. Try several times, practice different techniques for a better concentration, and be kind to yourself.