Thanks to CITRIS at UC Berkeley for hosting me for their Fall Research Exchange

Yesterday, CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) hosted me to kick off their Fall Research Exchange lectures to present “The Straight Story on UAVs in Ag.” They attracted a great crowd that was full of questions well past the end of the talk and I met a half dozen super talented engineering students whom I would love to bring over to 3DR. CITRIS clearly runs a great lecture series and look forward to the next time I get on to campus for the Geospatial Innovation Facility Geolunch.

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Whale watching made easy and some of my other favorite shots from Solo

I’ve had an amazing time capturing beautiful video and images since Solo launched a few months ago and have only had better luck now that the gimbal is out. I’m happy to share some of my favorites below.

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Whale watching made easy! I found these two humpbacks about 1,000 feet off of the beach near Santa Cruz.

boulderFlatirons in Boulder, CO from 300 feet.

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Aptos shipwreck as the sun is setting.

Thanks to NASA Ames for hosting UTM 2015 discussion on UAS integration into the NAS

Last week I had the opportunity to sit on a panel at NASA UTM 2015 to discuss the safe integration of drones into the national airspace. This is a hot button issue for many in the industry and I was glad to have the opportunity to share my thoughts. While there is a push from the entrenched aviation community to equip small (<2 kg) drones with all kinds of ADS-B-like and sense-and-avoid hardware, I, and many at 3DR, believe the first step to safe airspace integration is simply educating pilots.

Small, easy-to-operate, and inexpensive quadcopters allow an entirely new group of people to explore a dimension to which they previously never had access. I’ve seen many looks of wonder appear on new pilots’ faces as they see their worlds from above for the first time and I can’t help but think that many of the negative recent interactions between manned and unmanned aviation could have been avoided by simple pilot education.

Fortunately, there are a number of innovative companies working to educate pilots on safe places and times for flying. Hover recently embedded AirMap data layers, allowing recreational pilots to see airspace rules easily and at no cost. SkyWard is offering similar services.

So drone pilots, it’s on us now. Let’s fly safely, use these tools, and show the public that UAVs are about capturing amazing content, not creating a menace.

McKinnon NASA UTM

 

 

Mobile mapping with Solo, GoPro, Tower, and the Agribotix Field Extractor

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There has been a lot of interest in autonomous mission planning and mapping using Solo since release.

Good news: mission planning with Solo is exactly the same as it was with IRIS+ or any PixHawk powered vehicle.

Better news: the tools just keep getting better.

Mapping used to involve a truck full of computers, masts, antennas, and mobile hotspots and quite a bit of brain damage sorting out logs, images, and stitching after returning to the office. Now the same work can be done with the contents of a backpack and a minimal amount of computer, drone, and GIS aptitude.

What follows is a quick guide to mapping with Solo and nothing more than the contents of a backpack. The workflow is smooth enough now that I’m confident anyone can follow along and make a map with minimal effort and expense.

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Step one is to show up to your site with with a backpack filled with Solo, a GoPro (ideally with a 5.4mm flat lens installed), a handful of batteries (at 80% sidelap I get about 30 acres per flight at 350 feet), a patch antenna (if the area to be mapped is longer than a half a mile), an Android tablet, and a Windows laptop. I typically begin by popping powering on Solo and the transmitter, so everything is ready to go as soon as my mission planning is complete.

 Next, I whip out Tower and plan my mission. While full fledged mission planning used to require desktop applications, Tower has evolved into a very capable mobile solution and offers essentially all of the functionality of its desktop counterparts. Additionally, the 3DR team has recently written up some excellent guides to using Tower that are worth checking out for even the veteran.

 There’s no reason to duplicate work, but, briefly, my order of operations for mission planning is as follows:

1) Connect Tower to Solo using the WiFi setting in Android

2)Open the Editor and tap the squiggly line and select “Survey”

3) Draw a perimeter around the area of interest

4) Tap the green square in the lower righthand corner to bring up the survey details. Here you select the camera lens (GoPro with a 5.4mm lens has approximately the FOV of an S100), altitude, and sidelap. I’ve found 80% sidelap to be more than sufficient for most areas. Solo can typically cover around 30 acres at 80% sidelap flying 15 m/s at 350 feet. The survey tool also provides important information related to the quality of the survey.

5) Upload the mission to Solo by tapping on the three dots in the upper righthand corner.

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Next, turn on the GoPro and sync the GoPro time to the tablet time using the wrench icon in the GoPro app. This step is critical, but does not need to be repeated every flight. The images will be geotagged by matching the timestamp on the image with the flight log, so as the GoPro clock deviates from the tablet clock, accuracy is diminished.

After synchronizing the clocks, set the intervalometer to take a picture every two seconds. There is clearly room for experimentation here, but for most areas flying at 15 m/s and shooting every 2 seconds gives plenty of overlap (~75%, depending on altitude). This step will be eliminated when the Solo gimbal is released and camera control is built into Tower, but for now remains manual.

 After the GoPro is shooting and the mission is uploaded, arm Solo and send her on the autonomous mission, sit back on your cushy backpack, and enjoy a marg. Once the mission is completed and Solo lands, stop the camera and power cycle the tablet to write the logs to the permanent memory.

Next, here is where you will really enjoy the backpack seat, open your laptop and start Agribotix Field Extractor (I believe you must create an account to download this piece of software). In the very near future, this entire process will be mobile only, but for now a Windows laptop is still in the loop.

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Grab the SD card from the GoPro, plug it into the laptop, and connect the tablet to the laptop. Open the Agribotix Field Extractor and follow these instructions. The key piece here is that the GoPro already has its clock synced to the tablet, so the time offset is 0.

After importing and geotagging the images, Field Extractor generates a rough .kmz file that tiles the images in Google Earth locally immediately and generates a .zip file on the desktop of geotagged images. If you are an Agribotix customer and pay $49/month for image stitching in the cloud, like me, the images are automatically uploaded and stitched in around an hour. If you are not and prefer to use your own software like Pix4D, Photoscan Pro, AutoDesk ReCap, or something else entirely, you will have a nice folder of geotagged images on your desktop taken by Solo and GoPro.

While there are a lot of words above, the entire workflow is very smooth and makes mapping quite accessible to anyone interested is basic drone-based GIS and photogrammetry. Geotagging using the Agribotix Field Extractor by far the smoothest way to inject geotags onto images taken using a PixHawk controlled vehicles and image stitching in the Agribotix cloud takes all the brain damage out of using photogrammetry software. One of mine is below.

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Belated AUVSI recap

Two weeks ago I attended AUVSI to learn how the unmanned defense industry is pivoting into the commercial space and where 3DR fits into that ecosystem; give a talk on our community; and sit on a panel moderated by Drone Analyst on drone startups. However, the time available for my mission was cut seriously short by the overwhelming and unexpected interested in Solo displayed by an enormous range of show participants. Everyone from old school, black suit-wearing Lockheed engineers to startups building accessories for drones flocked to our “unmanned” Solo kiosk to ask about Solo. However, I still had a quick two hours on the last day of the show to scope out some of the exhibitors.

HarwarToward one end of the exhibition hall there was a horde of Chinese and Korean multirotor manufacturers who all  mysteriously claimed to have engineered their own autopilots from the ground up. Hmmmmm… That 3DR ublox GPS module is pretty distinctive, even if the logo is wiped off with acetone…

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AirRobot showed off a massive hexrotor that takes a 750 Wh battery! To give a sense of perspective, this is nearly five times the limit that can be taken on a plane. Every time the vehicle is shipped the battery must be packaged in a special flameproof case and carried by special courier.

Avyon microdrones

MicroDrones spun out a new US-based manufacturer called Avyon. Their business relationship is not totally clear, but they appear to be making the exact same high quality vehicles stateside, but rebranding them for the American audience.

Drone America

Drone America showed off an interesting octo at the AirWare booth. These designs nicely shroud the blades, but it can’t be an efficient way to maximize disk loading and I can’t imagine trying to travel with this.

Drone with shotguns

This shotgun-wielding heptarotor appeared in a number booths. No one could answer any questions about it, but it appears to be some boat/multirotor hybrid with a couple of 20 gauge shotguns underneath.

eXom

This SenseFly eXom is truly an impressive piece of engineering. It carries a thermal/optical gimbalized camera for inspections, several simple fixed cameras for sense-and-avoid, and several sonar units for the same purpose. I never saw a flight demo, but the GCS looked impressive, if not a little overwhelming.

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This huge Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter probably stole the show. I wonder if she flies PixHawk? As we were packing up, I was disappointed to see her getting loading onto a truck. I was hoping she flew in.

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Yamaha showed off a mini-R-MAX called the Fazer. It’s very cool to see Yamaha pushing this forward.

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This one doesn’t fly, but I certainly wouldn’t want to run into this machine gun-toting tracked vehicle in a dark alley.

Inspire clone

That didn’t take long! This Inspire 1 clone would be indistinguishable from the original to an uninitiated customer. This is a clear example as to how it is difficult to compete on hardware features alone.

Syrian Airlift Project

And finally, we ran into our friends at the Syrian Airlift Project. This group is using PixHawk-powered fixed wings to deliver food and medicine into besieged areas of Syria from the Turkish border. What an amazing use of UAV technology!

 

Big thanks to UC Davis for inviting me to give the Keynote at the Ag Innovation Entrepreneurship Academy

I had the pleasure of driving up to Davis on Tuesday night to deliver a fun Keynote to students and community members interested in ag tech at Ag Innovations Entrepreneurship Academy. The audience was comprised of entrepreneurial students preparing for business competitions, which I highly recommend students compete in, and community members interested in learning more about how the data drones collect can be used to drive efficiencies on their farms. We had a lot of fun covering the slides I presented about a year ago at DroneCon, chatting about Solo and how its onboard computing power can be leveraged to make ag data acquisition as simple as pressing a button, and sharing what Agribotix has been up to since I left. A great time was had by all and I’m looking forward to continuing to stay involved with this community. They even left me with a bottle of olive oil pressed from trees growing on campus.

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Heretical Guide to Getting a PhD in the Hard Sciences

I originally wrote up these lessons as a little novelette, the writing of which served as both a source of therapy and a structure with which to organize my ideas. I imagined I would write the foil to Philip Guo’s excellent The Ph.D. Grind for the everyman. While Philip gave the impression that he knew what he was getting into, attended two elite institutions (MIT and Stanford), and studied a glowing hot field (CS), I was more or less drifted my way into a PhD program because I wasn’t quite sure how to get a job. However, after finishing up my manuscript, I realized that 1) people prefer the TL;DR and 2) the guidance I would like to impart to current or potential students could be summarized in a much shorter blog post.

While I am overall very happy with my PhD experience, am proud of what I accomplished in graduate school, and am amazed by the incredible place I landed, I believe I would have been much better off if I had a practical guide in front of me when making important grad school-related decisions. Not a peaches and cream pamphlet from the National Science Foundation, not a conversation with a favorite professor, but a practical guide that was written by a former student who recently completed his doctorate that could shed some light on the process. What follows is that guide.

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What is a PhD? 

Based on my own experience and my experience formally or informally mentoring dozens of undergraduates and first-year students, I believe that the vast majority of students entering or considering entering PhD programs in the hard science have very little idea of what a PhD means. I occasionally even talk to third and fourth year students who don’t quite understand the meaning of the degree.

A PhD is an advanced degree designed to prepare students for a career in research. Not teaching. Not mentoring. Not entrepreneurship. Not leadership. Research. A PhD student spends nearly all of his time designing and performing experiments and communicating his results to colleagues. Coursework is generally completed in a year or two, teaching, if required at all, is a much lower priority than research, and activities like mentoring or entrepreneurship are generally recognized with a pat on the back, if at all. While this nearly complete emphasis on research probably does not benefit many students in the current economy, the faster this lesson is learned, the better. Every year while in graduate school I met a number of students who did not appreciate this fact and generally became frustrated and dropped out.

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Should I pursue a PhD?

Until recently, obtaining a PhD was far less common. Corporate research positions generally did not require advanced degrees and there were plentiful opportunities for young scientists right out of college. Those who pursued doctoral degrees were generally very academically inclined and tenured professorships were growing at fast enough rates to accommodate the new graduates. Corporate R&D funding was more plentiful and organizations like Bell and Exxon provided excellent non-academic environments for fundamental research.

The landscape now is quite different. A PhD does not guarantee either an academic or corporate research position. These PhD graduates spent 4-7 years training for research positions that may not exist anymore. While they almost certainly picked up valuable skills that could be applied to a number of high-level positions, many employers are not comfortable hiring PhD graduates for non-research positions, although this appears to be slowly changing. McKinsey & Co., for example, was one of the first companies to recognize the non-research value of a brain honed by years of critical thinking and is currently the second largest employer of PhDs, after the federal government.

To determine whether graduate school makes sense for you, I suggest you evaluate the decision based on three criteria—1) What the options available to you now? 2) Why do you want to earn a PhD? 3) What career do you see yourself occupying after graduation. The better the options available now, the worse of a deal grad school becomes. The stronger the justification you have for pursuing a degree, the more confident you should feel in your decision. And finally, imagine where you want to be in 20 years. Do people in those positions hold doctorates? If yes, then full steam ahead, if not, then it is perhaps wiser to spend your time doing something else.

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Where should I go to graduate school?

The advice I received when applying to graduate school was to select an advisor, not a school. I have heard this advice repeated frequently and, while it may apply to some extent in academic tracks, most job seekers on the other end of graduate school would argue that it couldn’t be further from the truth. While an excellent advisor is crucial to success in getting through graduate school, the institution is most critical in getting a job on the other end. I had a tremendous experience at the University of Colorado and was incredibly fortunate to have had an amazing advisor in Kristi Anseth, but the school did me no favors in finding a position prior to graduation. A much less qualified acquaintance of mine who held a PhD from Berkeley in a nearly identical field waltzed into interviews with companies that didn’t give me a second look. The institutional brand is very powerful and, while that shouldn’t solely dictate school decision, it should be weighed far more heavily than it is.

This is not to say, however, that the power of the school’s brand should dictate graduate school selection. Graduate school is a long journey. A typical PhD now takes more than 5 years and you will grow and mature significantly in that period. I would suggest that any student considering this journey should carefully consider institution brand, department quality, advisor selection, and location. Despite University of Colorado’s lack of a strong intuitional brand, I would have almost certainly elected to do my PhD there again due to a strong department, fantastic advisor, and unsurpassed location. Others will have different priorities.

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Selecting an academic home in graduate school

This decision is easy for many students. An undergraduate Physics student interested in string theory has no choice but to enroll in the Physics Department. However, interdisciplinary has been the hot buzzword in academia since I entered graduate school and I see no signs of it falling out of vogue. The budgets of the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy dwarf that of the National Science Foundation, so many groups try to tailor their research for the larger funding agencies. In Chemical Engineering, research is often artificially pushed toward a human health focus to reach into the NIH pot. A result of this drift is the emergence of many interdisciplinary programs. To prospective students they sound interesting. Why not combine the best of the chemical engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry to give students exposure to all of these fields?

In principle, it’s a good idea. Interdisciplinary research has the potential to advance some fields that are stuck in their ways, but in practice these programs are often given little support by member departments or faculty members. In most circumstances, a professor will be beholden to the department, the college, and the university before any affiliated interdisciplinary program. The end result is that students in these programs do not typically get the attention of students who are members of traditional departments. Furthermore, these programs do not have the brand recognition of established departments and can potentially hurt students when it comes time to search for work or apply for fellowships. No employer needs a Chemical Engineering degree explained, but an employer might struggle to understand what a PhD graduate of the Biomolecular Science & Engineering program might actually be able to do.

While my experience is generally limited to different departments focused on the biomedical sciences, I’m sure that the same trends occur in all fields. I would encourage potential PhD students to think wisely about selecting a strong department with a well-established identity and history of sending its students off to great futures.

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The ins and outs of beginning the most important long-term relationship of your career

The previous sections primarily dealt with preparing for success after graduate school. Graduating from a brand name institution with a PhD from a brand name department will help set you up for whatever you’d like to do after your defense. In contrast, selecting a good advisor will have a smaller effect on your post-graduation options, but will make the difference between a pleasant four-year PhD and a bone crushing seven-year slog. Selecting an advisor appropriate for your interests, personality, and work ethic is the most important decision you will make in graduate school.

While it is obvious you should select an advisor with whom you share some rapport and whose group you find pleasant, the affect an advisor has on your publication record is less obvious. Academic publishing is the key to success in graduate school. It is how research is both judged and communicated. Senior graduate students are evaluated almost exclusively by their publication records. Many strong publications will take the edge off of every other hurdle you will encounter toward earning your PhD and your advisor will serve as the gatekeeper to getting these papers out. To put it bluntly, a well known advisor will allow your papers to get accepted into higher impact journals than an unproven assistant professor. While fit, personality, work ethic, and other aspects should be strongly considered, a famous advisor who continues to publish well will really smooth the graduate research progress and should be weighted heavily.

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Graduate coursework (get a 4.0 no matter what you hear otherwise)

Graduate coursework is a strange animal. Unlike undergraduate engineering degrees, certified by ABET, and degrees in the chemical sciences, certified by ACS, graduate degrees have little to no large institutional oversight. Graduate coursework can range from seminars discussing papers to bone crushing thermodynamics courses that drive some students out of the program. In Chemical Engineering, the coursework tends to be quite challenging, while the biological sciences tend to be much lighter on the coursework. This makes evaluating a graduate GPA tricky. To further compound this issue, some advisors expect rapid progress in lab, minimizing time available to focus on coursework, while others are far more understanding.

Most academicians will tell graduate students that a graduate GPA is unimportant. Common advice is to just pass the courses and focus on developing a research project. I heard multiple times that no one will ever ask to see a graduate GPA.

Unfortunately for me, who spent little time on coursework and ended up with a respectable, but not stellar 3.5 GPA, this is simply not true. Every single recruiter with whom I spoke and job for which I applied asked for my graduate GPA. This may be nonexistent in academic career tracks, but many positions had a hard 3.5 GPA cutoff, which thankfully I just skated over.

Contrary to the advice that is commonly dispensed, I would encourage any graduate students still taking classes to put forth their best effort and do their best to earn a 4.0. It will pay dividends in the future.

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Project selection with make or break your grad school experience

Once you’ve landed a good advisor in a good department at a good university, you will have to select a project. I experienced the project selection process at both UCSB and CU and have a number of friends at other universities, so I’m pretty sure it’s the same nearly everywhere. Faculty members meet the summer before the incoming students arrive and assess the size of the class and their interests. At CU, the department was split roughly evenly between groups with an energy focus and a biotechnology focus and the admissions committee made sure to accept a class that reflected that split. The faculty members then negotiate how many students each could reasonably accept based on the funding situation, needs of others, and projected drop out rate. Depending on the level of organization, they could develop specific projects on which students would begin their doctoral research. The projects are then presented to the incoming class with a wide range of specificity. Because some projects and advisors will be more desirable than others, the first-year class must negotiate amongst itself and with the faculty members to try to ensure that every student ends up with a satisfactory project. The projects are then ranked and after the first semester students are assigned labs and projects. Unfortunately, this process is not perfect, but almost every student in my first-year class was satisfied with where he or she ended up.

The process of project selection can be stressful and what sounds exciting to a first-year PhD student is likely nearly diametrically opposite of what makes an excellent project. Incoming graduate students often dramatically overestimate the scope of their little subfield and professors will often describe their labs and projects to these students as if talking to a general audience. They will often overemphasize the practicability of their research, which drives many poor decisions in project selection.

It should also be mentioned that in good labs project selection is not a five-year prescription. PhD projects are fluid and respond to new results and new interests. A good advisor will have the knowledge and funding to allow the student to drive the research, rather than work hopelessly on an intractable problem. I started my PhD working on neural engineering because I liked how neurons look under a fluorescent microscope and ended up studying rheology. Project selection should be just a general path to follow until the student is comfortable performing independent research.

I would suggest selecting a project reasonably close to the core competency of the lab to make sure you can lean on colleagues for advice and support, branching the project into a easy, fundamental data collection subproject and a big ideal subproject to hedge your risk, and be willing to aggressively reject hypotheses and move on if progress is too difficult.

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Make friends with your class and lab mates

One area where I failed miserably was in developing close relationships with my class and lab mates. Different programs will have different social norms, but you will be interacting with your class in graduate school throughout your whole career. Not only does a strong relationship with your class smooth out the bumps of the first year or two in grad school, but your classmates will become excellent sources of support as you progress through your oral exams and defense. In addition, your classmates will go on to take excellent academic and industrial positions and keeping close with them will benefit everyone throughout his or her career.

Unfortunately, I returned to Boulder with an established group of friends and didn’t make an effort to attend first-year student events. Graduate students can be an eccentric bunch, to say the least, but I would highly recommend making a strong effort to befriend your entire class and department.

This should be extended to faculty members as well. Beyond your advisor, make a strong effort to bond with your committee members and other faculty members in your department. These are future friends and colleagues.

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Applying for fellowships (read this right now)

Graduate students are generally funded in one of three ways: teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and independent fellowships. Typically, PhD students will teach a semester or two to provide some funding and fulfill the Department of Education’s requirements that some teaching is incorporated into graduate education. If teaching is required for significantly more than that, I would advise selecting another graduate program. As previously mentioned, a PhD is a research degree and little value is placed upon teaching well.

Research assistantships are paid through your advisor’s research grants. Professors write grant proposals to funding agencies asking for money to support their research. The proposals are very specific and detail exactly how many graduate students will be working on each aspect of the project. This is how most graduate students’ tuition and stipend are paid. In theory, these funds are tied to working on very specific projects, however in practice grants are generally written for projects that are already more or less finished. If a potential advisor believes that you should rigidly pursue a project based on grant funding, you should really look elsewhere. Some labs, like the Anseth lab, are also funded by independent private sources like Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

However, every graduate student should, at a minimum, apply for both the NSF GRF and the NIH F31. These fellowships are common enough and important enough that a separate section will be devoted to each. When applying for the NSF GRF you are being judged both on your potential as a scientist and your inclination for service towards the NSF mission, with the evaluation strongly weighted towards the latter. You submit transcripts, a few letters of recommendation, and write both a personal statement and a research plan. The application is easy, both statements are quite short, and the payoff is potentially quite large. Fellows are awarded a generous stipend that most universities will supplement (at CU NSF fellows earned 35% more than other students), some travel funds, and the prestige of being a fellow that will open doors in the future.

When writing both the personal statement and the research statement it is absolutely critical to remember that the NSF Fellowship referees are judging your potential to advance the NSF mission. You particular project is not terribly important, nor are your past lab experiences. What is important is that you want to pursue high impact research and use the results to help better your community. It is absolutely essential to include plans to disseminate your research to the greater community in both your research and personal statements. I would recommend mentoring high school student science fair projects or giving demos at local schools. A poor proposal with strong outreach will trump a strong proposal with poor outreach every time.

Applying for the NIH F31 is a whole different ball game. It probably took me a few months of half-hearted searching to even figure out how to apply. The application package was close to 50 pages long when all was said and done and cannot be taken as lightly at the NSF GRF. The largest individual element of an F31 is a 12-page research statement outlining how future directions build upon previous results, but the application package requires a half dozen or so different essays and statements. In contrast to the NSF Fellowship, the NIH F31 is a research proposal and little weight is given to mentoring, outreach, or impact. The format is nearly identical to multimillion-dollar NIH R01 proposals.

For those with less of an academic inclination, I would still highly recommend taking the time to submit at least one F31. Writing an F31 is extremely time consuming and highly unpleasant, but it will improve your writing and help crystalize your project into a clear set of attainable goals. If planned correctly, which unfortunately was not my case, the F31 serves as an excellent template to both a comps paper and eventually your thesis.

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Expand your horizons beyond research

As mentioned in the first chapter a PhD is a research degree. Period. You will not graduate from a respectable department unless you have published several strong scientific journal articles that have been reviewed and accepted by your peers, have presented these findings at national conferences, and have written a cogent thesis advancing knowledge in some particular area. However, the skills that you develop while performing research may not be in particularly high demand after graduate school, whether you decided to pursue an academic or industrial track. For example, very few professors or corporate researchers perform experiments or write papers once their groups become established and many hard science PhD-holders work outside research all together. To prepare for life after graduate school it is very important to broaden your horizons beyond this narrow skill set, despite the frequent pressure not to. Not only will these activities round out your soft skillsets, but are required on a modern resume. Hiring managers love to see lines like communication, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

The first skill I would recommend honing is teaching. While I mentioned earlier that I would recommend avoiding teaching if possible, most programs requires a semester or two of teaching, so the key is to extract the most value from this experience. It is not uncommon to be asked to grade undergraduate homework assignments as a teaching assistant, but this is a total waste of your time. Grading adds little personal or professional value and should be avoided at all costs. When I was assigned to grade for my first stint as a teaching assistant, I actually just paid, out of my own pocket, an undergraduate to do the grading for me. Apparently the department didn’t look too fondly upon this activity, but it is a path I would recommend for anyone, if the department approves. Slightly up the totem pole is holding office hours or recitations. Here you will not only have a lot more fun and get to interact with the most enthusiastic students, but you will also hone critical thinking and communications skills that can be highlighted on your resume upon graduation. The highest value teaching assignment is actually designing a course, working with the instructor to write exams and plan recitations, and delivering some of the lectures. My second stint as a teaching assistant fell into this category and was invaluable in my job search as it codified my ability to communicate complex scientific principles to general audiences. This is a highly sought after skill and developing course demonstrates proficiency.

The second important soft skill to develop in graduate school is effective mentoring. Most departments subtly encourage students to mentor high school or undergraduate students, but in practice there is often little support for finding good mentees. Undergraduate researchers and high school science fair projects represent two totally different challenges in mentorship, but both force new graduate students to crystalize their ideas and distill possible projects into small bites. While some graduate students claim the enormous amount of time they’ve spent training undergraduates eventually pays off in terms of increased productivity, this is rare and I would encourage you to think about mentorship as a development opportunity for yourself, not the training of an assistant.

Finally, every graduate student should make some attempt to independently collaborate with another group. Again, hiring managers at all companies, in all industries love team players and nothing says team player like a good collaborator. Additionally, while most collaborations fizzle out because neither party wants to really take the time to drive the project forward, some collaborations turn into very productive lines of research. I published three (1, 2, 3) papers with a postdoc in another group whom I initially approached about a totally different project, which was one of those collaborations that fizzled out. Our work together is being continued by current students and represented the fusion of some unique ideas and techniques that could not have happened within the group.

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Entrepreneurship in graduate school should be mandatory

Amidst all the pressures to finish coursework, pass exams, and publish papers, it seems there is little time for entrepreneurship in graduate school. However this is rapidly changing. In 1980, congress passed the Bayhe-Dole Act, which more or less mandated organizations receiving federal research dollars to attempt to commercialize their work. This has resulted in a much more entrepreneurial academic community and has led to the majority of established professors being involved in one startup company or another attempting to commercialize technology developed in their labs. Until very recently, graduate students were often excluded from this entrepreneurial renaissance. Aside from working for their advisors’ startups after graduation, most graduate students don’t get the opportunity to play with commercializing their work and developing a strong set of business skills.

This should change. Graduate school is a low-pressure environment for entrepreneurship and an excellent time to dabble in new activities. My most positive experiences in graduate school were tied to co-founding Agribotix, a UAV-enabled farm data company. I suggest every graduate student get involved in school sponsored business competitions to both learn about the commercialization of scientific research and connect with entrepreneurial community members. By taking Agribotix through the process, I dramatically expanded my network, learned a new skill set that use every day in my current position, and earned a nice gold star on my CV.

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So proud to be part of 3DR Solo launch

I got a tremendous birthday present on Tuesday when we unveiled a sneak preview of the vehicle 3DR has been working on in secret for more than a year. While I was not involved in any of the development process, I am still so proud to be a member of this team and am impressed by what the Solo group has accomplished. Solo makes every other drone on the market seem obsolete. The advanced hardware coupled with our recently announced API, DroneKit, will make the 3DR the absolute platform of choice for both recreational and professional UAV users. Click the image below for a link to our awesome baboon video, if you haven’t seen it already.

2015-04-09 10.04.51 pm

Beware of shipping revenue-generating parcels by USPS

The United States Postal Service is great for two reasons. First, for a couple quarters a letter can be sent across the country. Second, books, and other media free of advertising, can be shipped nearly anywhere for barely more than fifty cents a pound. The drawbacks of the USPS include stuffing your mailbox with rainforests worth of direct mail, providing no real service in the event of a lost package, barraging website users with a spammy array of services during a simple address change, charging for sundries like paper and tape at their retail locations, and many others that I’m sure Americans of all stripes can come together and complain about. However, I was a little bit surprised to find a new one today.

Over the course of my life I have gradually been acquiring books more quickly than I get rid of them. Some are great novels I’ve read, some are textbooks from college or grad school, some a books I never read about a subject I wanted to learn about, and some are on the to-read list. No matter how fast I give away books, I always seem to continue accumulating them. This presents a problem each time I move.

For my current transition from Atlanta to Berkeley, I decided to ship my collection via media mail. I calculated I had about 300 pounds of books I wanted to keep, so USPS would charge me about $150 to move them all. Not bad. I then figured that since I was shipping books, I may as well ship all my stuff. I went to my friendly local Midtown ATL post office this morning with 10 small (16″ x 12″ x 12″) Home Depot boxes plus a few others.

First I was informed that each USPS customer can only ship 10 packages per day! Huh? I would love to know if this is actually true and, if it is, what kind of insane business wants its customers not to use its services. However, my clerk bent the rules for me and agreed to ship all 12 of my packages as long as I rewrote all the address labels.

Then came the prices. Media Mail was about $0.50 per pound, as expected, but by non-media boxes rang up at almost three times the price without tracking, insurance, or any other niceties included with competitors’ rates. I know USPS loses money on first class mail and media mail, but I would have thought that their destructively cheap behavior at the retail locations and direct mail cash cow would let them charge competitive rates on regular shipments. I was wrong.

For a 50 pound 16″ x 12″ x 12″ package going from Atlanta to Berkeley insured for $500, USPS charges $92.70. FedEx Ground only charges $68.46. I had looked up the FedEx Ground rate before walking in and would have assumed USPS would have parity, but realized I was totally wrong as my first non-Media Mail package got rung up. The fact that USPS is so uncompetitive (35% more expensive!) was really surprising to me. In fact, given how many packages I had, the dramatically higher rate drove me right to the FedEx office down the street.

I realize the government holds down First Class Mail and Media Mail rates and direct mail is an important revenue generator for the USPS, but the fact that they can’t compete on regular parcel price while offering a significantly worse experience to most customers was very surprising for me. I don’t know what the solution is to improve the USPS experience, but given the current letter volume, distaste for mass mailings, and excellence of FedEx and UPS, I think the time may soon come to pull the plug.

2015-03-09 05.43.51 pm2015-03-09 05.44.06 pm