Monthly Archives: September 2009

Introduction to ASES

It’s one and half weeks into fall quarter and everything––classes, clubs, research––is starting to pick up steam again. Last Friday, in White Plaza, hordes of bright-eyed freshmen swarmed the booths at Stanford’s annual Activities Fair, where student groups try their best to seduce the frosh with sweet candy and sweeter words. It’s pretty sketchy.

The Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES), as a respectable student organization, of course participated.

Here’s my take on ASES:
ASES is an international network of today’s students and tomorrow’s business and technology leaders. We focus our efforts on a well-rounded entrepreneurship education for our members through in-depth workshops, competitions, speaker events, and international summits (2 each year). That said, our goal isn’t to have every ASES member go on to start a company. We emphasize entrepreneurial qualities––teamwork, self-belief, leadership, passion––simply because we believe these values drive innovation and are the key to success in all walks of life.

The Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES)

The Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES)

Anyway, here’s my contribution, as Director of Marketing for ASES, to the freshman courtship process (all done in Microsoft Word):

(Front) Secret to successful marketing in college: free food

(Front) The secret to successful marketing in college: free food

(Back) Irresistible

(Back) Irresistible

The underlying principles behind this blatant but effective marketing ploy come from basic psychology and a book on advertising I read a few weeks ago, My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising, by Claude Hopkins.

Think about it: instead of asking for attention or compliance from the freshmen, we offer a sample and a service.

No good advertiser demands a purchase in his ads; such a move would be akin to directly asking for the customer’s money, and in most cases, the response would be outright refusal. Instead, he offers a “Free, No-Risk 30-Day Trial!” Similarly, by framing our underlying request for attendance at our info session as an offering of boba, we give our new recruits a risk-free incentive to attend. Even if a freshman walked out of the info session with no intention of ever joining ASES, he still walked out with a free cup of boba in hand. What’s more, by adding on the back of the coupon a checklist of “Things Every Stanford Student Should Do”––a fun and debatably useful service––we gave our flyer value and guaranteed that freshmen and upperclassmen alike wouldn’t toss it in the trash can without first spending a furtive minute seeing how they measured up against a “true Stanford student.”

In part because of that doubled-up marketing tactic, our info session attendance––scientifically gauged by the quantity and rate of boba consumption––went through the roof.

If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, stay tuned: I’ll be writing more about upcoming ASES events as the quarter progresses.


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The Amazing Race

I’m back at Stanford.

Last Saturday I competed––competed is a strong word––RAN the US Air Force Half-Marathon, the first non-marathon road race I’ve ever run and the first I’ve run outside of California. Besides a couple 100-meter dashes in 8th grade track & field, my parents have never seen me compete in a legit race before, so I’m glad they were able to come out and help me carry all those heavy, heavy 1st place trophies home. 🙂 OK, maybe not. But I’m still glad they came.

The race was scheduled to start at 8:30AM on the grounds of the National Air Force Museum, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, so I woke up at 6AM to eat a banana and drink some water––it’s best to eat at least 2-3 hours before a long run––and pump myself up for an exciting 13.1-mile journey with the Air Force’s finest. Right before a race I’m always worried that my race number or timing chip is going to fall off while I’m running, and Saturday morning was no exception. I probably checked my bib and chip at least 10 times before heading out the door.

With my super strength, I will tear off these warm-ups.

With my superhuman strength, I will... tear off these warm-ups.

The weather was perfect: 60-something and sunny. After a painfully slow Air Force rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a flyover by a couple F-16 fighter jets––apparently, the “sound of freedom” is that of your eardrums exploding––we were off.

From mile 1 to the mile 6 turnaround, I just glided, sitting on the tail end of the 1:40 pace group. Life was easy. I didn’t keep track of my pace too carefully, but there was a huge, ripped Air Force guy right in front of me, and I figured if I could stay with him, I’d be in pretty good shape. Well, he kept a metronomic pace, but this guy was FAST; just trying to keep an eye on him, I left the pace group in the dust.

By the time we reached the tenth mile marker, I was ready to die. Every breath hurt.

If you compare the last 6.2 miles of a marathon with the last 3.1 of a half, they’re pretty much the same. In either case, you feel like you’re going to die. The only difference is despair. In a marathon, when you hit the wall at mile 20, you literally have no energy left in your body. In a half, at mile 10, you know the pain is temporary, no matter how much it hurts. In Harry Potter terms, it’s Avada Kedavra vs. Cruciatus. Both hurt like hell, but one is somehow infinitely worse than the other.

So when I saw the sign that said, “Your feet hurt because you’re kicking so much ass,” I grinned and kept on running. And at mile 12, I sprinted past my giant pacer––who I admit DID have a knee brace on––and never looked back. The tunnel vision kicked in around then, and I saw nothing but the next guy/girl I had to pass in order to make it to the finish line as fast as humanly possible. Then it was over.

The taste of victory.

The taste of victory.

I crossed the finish line in 1:36:35, a pace of 7:22 per mile. Negative splits too––I covered the first half in 49 minutes, the second half in 47. And as I discovered on Saturday, there’s a certain satisfaction in being competitive in a race––not necessarily in terms of being fast enough to vie for an overall or age group award, but rather in sustaining a competitive mindset throughout the entire race. Invariably, when the glycogen depletion rears its ugly head at mile 20 of a full marathon, all I can think of is finishing the race upright. In Saturday’s half, I crossed the line with the notion of finishing as quickly as possible still intact in my mind. It’s kind of like taking a class pass/fail vs. taking it for a letter grade––in one case all you care about is getting by, in the other you always want to do as well as you possibly can.

Will and me

Will and me

Post-Race Family Pic

Chilling with my parents

Today’s assessment: nothing bruised, nothing broken, nothing sore. Now I feel like running barefoot again.

What a way to end the summer.


P.S. Congratulations to Mom for finishing her first 5-K on Friday!

Congratulations, Mom!

Congratulations, Mom!

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USAF Half-Marathon

I’ve been at home for nearly 3 weeks now, and I’m headed back to Stanford on Saturday.

But right before I get on that Frontier Airlines flight bound for San Francisco, I’m running the US Air Force Half-Marathon with Will, one of my childhood friends. I’ve been training pretty consistently most of the summer, but for some reason, I’m not really nervous or even completely aware yet that I’m going to be running a 13.1-mile race in less than 2 days. Usually, right before a marathon, I’m all hyper and raring to run, but this time, I guess I have other things––the start of another school year, mostly––on my mind. Also, in terms of difficulty and glycogen drain, 13.1 miles is definitely NOT equal to half of 26.2 miles, so I haven’t had to carbo-load or taper. And no taper = no “taper madness.” 🙂

12 weeks of training: Check. Race number (4469): Check. Broken-in shoes (Brooks Adrenaline): Check.

So I’m in pretty good shape for the race, right?

Nope. So on Tuesday morning, I picked up the book Born To Run, by Chris McDougall, and couldn’t put it down until I finished it that afternoon. It’s a hyper-paced story that revolves around a lost tribe of sorts, the Tarahumara Indians of the treacherous Copper Canyons of Mexico. The Tarahumara are legendary among those in the know––essentially two communities: ultrarunners and crazy sports scientists––as the world’s natural-born superathletes, gods among men. The problem is, with AK-47-toting drug lords guarding their precious crops and perilous cliffs that drop away into nothingness, few people ever make it in AND out of the Copper Canyons alive (the Tarahumara themselves are a peaceful people). Anyway, McDougall weaves together a storyline involving a mysterious gringo named Caballo Blanco (“White Horse”), a delegation of the world’s best ultramarathoners, and a 50-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the best of modern running against the best of the “Running People,” who run in sandals made of used car tires and rope. And the book is NON-FICTION. Amazing.

The most exciting non-fiction book I've ever read

The most exciting non-fiction book I've ever read

The book talks up the genuine joy of running so much that, naturally, I decided yesterday that it would be a good idea to try running barefoot, kinda like the Tarahumara. And well, it sure felt good while I was running.

Then I woke up this morning.

It felt like Chris Brown had gotten mad at my calves and decided to teach them a lesson. (Too soon? Sorry, Rihanna.) Luckily, I still have another day and half before the race, so I should be at full strength by the time I pin on my race bib.

At least the race t-shirt looks sweet.


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My Summer Research: Saving the World

OK, not quite. But I did contribute a tiny bit to my research group’s efforts to develop a new type of solar energy converter that could make a big difference in the way we create and consume energy.

I spent most of this summer working in a multidisciplinary research group under the Stanford EE Department’s Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Our work focused on a new solar energy harvesting concept called Photon Enhanced Thermionic Emission (PETE) and dreamed up by Nick Melosh, a MatSci professor at Stanford. I can’t go too much into the details now, since the seminal paper is yet to be published, but PETE holds a lot of potential as a novel source of low-cost renewable energy because unlike traditional PV (solar) cells, which quickly lose efficiency at high temperatures, PETE actually gains efficiency with increasing temperature, feeding off the heightened thermal energy to aid photoemission. As a result, we can combine the PETE device with a solar thermal converter––which, as a heat engine, can only run efficiently at elevated temperatures––and realize some absurdly high theoretical conversion efficiencies. For those familiar with solar cell operation, PETE can beat the Shockley-Queisser limit by taking advantage of below-bandgap photons and heat energy from hot-carrier thermalization.

Anyway, it turns out PETE, as well as many other optoelectronic devices, can get a pretty significant photoemission efficiency boost from the use of semiconductor nanostructures, like nanowires. For that reason, I spent 10 weeks this summer building a Monte Carlo simulation to characterize electron dynamics in nanowires, to help us better understand how electrons behave under various material conditions at nanoscale dimensions. My post-doc mentor, Igor, created the basic framework and helped me build and test the simulation. I ended up with some pretty cool results. I reproduced the negative differential resistance phenomenon in GaAs and matched the experimental scattering rate data surprisingly accurately. The graphic below is a visualization (created in Mathematica) of a single electron trajectory in a GaAs nanowire.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

I got really lucky this summer, with a great mentor who wanted me to learn and a meaningful project in a high-potential field that might have shifted my entire academic and career trajectory toward grad school and solar energy research. That said, I’m still exploring other interests, and entrepreneurship still holds a fundamental appeal to me, so who knows where that combination will lead me? At the end of the summer, I got to give a couple presentations, one to my lab group and one to the entire REU program, advisors, and guests. I had a good time with both, and I’m excited to keep working on the PETE project as the new school year starts.

One of the greatest things about research, especially engineering research, is the flexibility that you often have with your work environment. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want to waste precious desk space in Allen on me, but I ended up working from my dorm, from the library, and from just about anywhere else on campus with an internet connection (and at Stanford, that’s pretty much everywhere). I could, and often did, wake up at 10PM and still get more done than a 9-to-5er by working on my own schedule, at times when I was most efficient, including sometimes late into the night. The 8-hour workday and Monday-to-Friday workweek simply didn’t exist––I might work 13 hours one day, 6 the next, a few hours here and there on a Saturday––but when something needed to be done, I got it done. If a friend needed a 4th man to fill out a beach volleyball team, I was there. And I still found time to read a couple books, go to the beach with friends, keep up my running, and have the summer of a lifetime. And although the task may be harder, the prospect of starting my own company holds a similar allure. After all, when you truly care about and believe in the meaning of your work, why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time with it as it takes to succeed?

Thanks for reading.


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Thoughts on Undergraduate Research

What is “undergraduate research?”

I spent most of my summer doing research at Stanford in the EE Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. It was an eye-opening experience for me, since before this summer, I had no clue what real academic research was. I’d worked as a research assistant at the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Dayton, OH, for the past 3 summers, but the problem was, as a senior in high school, I didn’t believe I could actually contribute anything worthwhile to the USAF mission, much less to the field of electrical engineering; and with that mindset, I was right–I couldn’t. But I did leave the base at the end of each summer with a solid appreciation for my mentor’s patience with my questions––I didn’t even know enough engineering vocabulary to ask proper questions––and overall mastery of EE. This guy is barely 30 years old, I thought. There’s no way I can learn that much in 10 years. That was back before I encountered the quarter system.

If you walk up to a science/engineering undergrad and ask, “What are you doing next summer?” there’s about a 98% chance that he’ll reply, “Oh, I’m just doing some research on campus.” Especially if “next summer” is actually Summer 2009 and tech companies are tossing employees overboard like sacks of sand from a sinking ship. Everyone always talks about “doing research,” but what part of “research” can a college undergraduate actually do? The answer, it turns out, is “a lot”––for the good of the undergrad AND of the research team he joins.

An undergrad can’t expect to waltz into a research group and immediately start churning out first authorships. You gotta pay your dues. That said, as long as you go in with an open mind and can-do attitude, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish, even in one summer of research. I’ll talk about what I did this summer in a later post; I’d like to think I did something meaningful in my own 10 weeks of research.

Let’s say you’re a research assistant in a bio lab for the summer, it’s 9AM, and you’re hard at work PCRing or pumping your mice/fish/monkeys full of chemicals. Your PI asks you to clean up the lab because he’s got a visiting professor from some university you’ve never heard of coming to tour the lab this afternoon. You can: a) whine and complain and spend your entire day slowly rearranging lab equipment––I mean, hey, your stipend check for the entire summer’s already signed and deposited anyway––or b) smile, clean like you’ve never cleaned before, and be one more injected mouse closer to curing cancer before the dining hall closes for lunch. It’s up to you. In real life, your success is almost always up to you.

In talking to professors and post-docs and grad students that I’ve met at Stanford and elsewhere, I’ve often heard that the common trait of all successful researcher/grad students is that they have acquired the ability to endure consistent uncertainty. No research scientist is ever 100% sure of a particular outcome and of the future applications of his work. That’s the challenge of research, and it may be for the best––the term “serendipity” comes to mind. Interestingly enough, many ASES speakers and business articles I’ve read have stressed that same capacity to act, to make the hard decisions, in the face of unpredictable circumstances as a quality that nearly all highly-regarded CEOs possess in spades. That unusual parallel hints at a secret to uncommon success that may be––dare I say it––universal.


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An Auspicious Start

It’s 9/9/09.

Welcome to my first-ever post on my first-ever blog!

First order of business: an introduction. I’m Joel, a junior (Class of Oh-Leven!) EE major at Stanford University. Some of my greatest interests lie in entrepreneurship, solar energy, tennis, marathon running, and changing the world, so most of my posts will probably touch on at least one of those topics. I might also use this blog as a training log and a journal of sorts, to keep track of my weekly mileage and occasional profound thoughts.

Maybe if I smile big enough I won't remember later how much this hurts right now...

Big Sur Marathon 2009: *Maybe if I smile big enough, I won't remember how much this hurts right now...*

I decided to start writing a blog for a few reasons:

1. Writing’s fun when you don’t need a thesis and “6-10 pages double-spaced by Friday at noon.”

2. EE problem sets rarely call for more than a few written words, and never a complete sentence. Given my courseload, if I don’t do any writing on my own, I’ll leave Stanford in 2 years with diploma in hand, broke AND illiterate.

3. I missed out on Pokémon cards, Tamagotchi pets, Xanga sites, Furbies, Monica Lewinsky, and all manner of useless trends that made the rounds in American high society near the turn of the century, so I’m long overdue for an atrocious lapse of judgment.

Another good reason to blog: I’m serving as Marketing Director for the Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES) at Stanford this year, and even though I have no formal marketing experience at all, I do know that, as a marketer, the more people you can reach, the better. So starting in a couple weeks, I’ll be posting periodic updates on ASES speaker events, mixers, and conferences. Most ASES events are open to the public, so if you’re in the Bay Area, come on by Stanford to hear and meet the best and brightest in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Thanks for reading.


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