Monday, April 21, 2008

SAE World Congress

Last week, I got to travel to Detroit, Michigan to attend the 2008 SAE World Congress, where I presented my first publication on Further Development of an Electronic Particulate Matter Sensor and Application to Diesel Engine Transients with my advisor, Dr. Matt Hall. He invented, and together we are developing, a sensor for diesel engine exhaust to measure the soot content. The goal of the work is to enable better control of engines for more efficient and cleaner operation.
The Congress was in two parts. There was a large exhibition, with many dozens of vendors representing a broad swath of the automotive industry, from south asian parts suppliers to BMW touting its newest hydrogen and diesel engines and Honda showing its latest engine magic, handily wrapped into even the very modest, very long-lived, and very cool Super Cub. (Honda engineers are always fun to talk to, in my experience, both in the conference rooms and on the exhibition floor.)
Then upstairs were the technical sessions, where the papers were being presented. This is where I spent the majority of my time. There were a 30-40 sessions, at least, each with about 15 papers to present on a specific theme. My session, organized in part by Dr. Hall, was the Combustion Analysis and Flow Diagnostics session (PFL203 for those who care). The session was split between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and wouldn't you know, but I was the first presenter, just after lunch on Tuesday. That was probably a good thing, because it meant that I didn't have too much time to get nervous. I can't really relax and enjoy things when I'm uptight about having to present.
A funny little thing happened on the way to the Congress, which I will share at my own expense and for your enjoyment if you promise not to laugh too hard. (Note the "nerd" and "self-awareness" tags on this article.) I packed for myself in usual fashion, at the last minute and with minimal, but in my estimation sufficient, consideration about what to wear, happy to have remembered sufficient socks and to match belt color to shoes. I even packed two ties of tasteful and moderate but fashionable design. I resisted the urge to wear a bow-tie in honor of my father. I put as much or more thought into packing my back pack with sufficient reading material for the flights and down-time. You understand my priorities, right? So I march out Tuesday morning, headed for the Cobo Center, and I'm about 10 minutes into my walk when it occurs to me that my sport coat is navy blue and not black as I had supposed in the dimmer light of the closet. Not a problem except for the black pants I'm wearing. I've learned to trust that little nagging I get in my subconscious, so I dialed Hannah, and after chatting about my impression of the city, blah blah blah, I tried to subtly share the humor of discovering my mismatch with her. She however, instead of chuckling with me and encouraging me to plod ahead since I'd be with a bunch of other mismatched nerds anyway and who cares (right?), got deathly silent and said, "You're wearing what?!" "Uh, my black pants..." "Your faded black pants that are not at all dressy??!! With a navy sport coat???!!!" "Um, I gotta go."

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Well, here's the truth. I marched on to the Cobo Center because I was afraid of missing breakfast (I missed it), and registered and scouted out where my presentation room was. Then, full of inner conflict and needing to resolve some self-confidence issues, hopped on the People Mover back to the hotel room and, feeling like and idiot for the initial gaffe and as much an idiot for going back, changed into some appropriate slacks and made my way back. Penance was duly performed, and now I was free to be my best.
(OK, pick yourselves up off the floor from laughing and read the rest of the story...)
It's a good thing that I practiced my presentation twice before giving it, because in front of 70-80 people who all knew a lot more about this than I do, I was pretty intimidated, and it was hard to think straight. I pretty much just stuck to the script I had practiced and managed to come in exactly on time. There were several good questions and a couple that I had to punt to Dr. Hall. I sat down feeling immense relief.
Seven presentations later (Phew!) as we were walking to the coat room, I asked Dr. Hall how he thought I did. "That was good. You did really well. Exceeded my expectations; not that they were low. Good job." I picked my jaw up off the floor and thanked him. (Once. It was a considerable effort not to dissolve into a blithering idiot.) He is not one to idly dole out praise, and he has been free to tell it like it is before, so I took it as a genuine compliment. 'Nuff said.
That night there was a big dinner party hosted by the Southwest Research Institute, where I met several Texas Exes, including Alok Warey, my predecessor in Dr. Hall's lab who worked on the sensor before me. The next morning, I roamed the exhibition hall, and loaded up on pamphlets and trinkets for the kids. That afternoon, there were 8 more presentations, and then we left for the airport.
One last funny story about the trip to the airport, and then I promise I'll sign off. (I know this is getting long.) So we hop in this taxi cab and immediately I realize we're in for quite a ride. For one the taxi is barely holding itself together and needs new shocks, new A/C, and a good bit of interior decoration... But the driver was the real piece of work. He asked what we were at the conference for and immediately connected with us on "the sensors" and proceeded to tell us all about his experiences at mechanics school. And then art school, which he attends while he can. And all about the inside view of the art industry and how to and how not to make it. And then he wanted to show us his work and whipped out his cell phone and flipped through the photos he'd taken of his wood turning work, all while weaving in and out of traffic, dodging the famous 13-axle Michigan semi-trailers. At one point, he handed the phone back to me to scroll through his pictures. It turns out I'm the talkative one between my advisor and me (ever hear the joke about the extroverted engineer?), and I know a little bit about woodworking, so I hung onto the phone and tried to make conversation about this and that exotic wood, etc. in an attempt to allow him to keep his eyes on the road. Alas, out came a second cell phone with pictures of some well-carved gradfather clocks. I gave up and started praying...
We actually reached the airport in record time (phew!) and tipped him generously for the ride, thankful to have arrived alive. I won't even talk about the guy I sat next to on the airplane... Ah the adventure!
Thanks for reading.

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