Monday, December 20, 2010

Teaching 101

This isn't a post about how to teach, but rather a quick glance into preparations for my first class at Drexel.  I have never taught an introductory course to undergraduates before, so I am excited and anxious.  The course is an introduction to biomechanics, focusing on the mechanics of deformable solids, a.k.a. mechanics of materials. 

Even before preparing this course, I've been exposed to a number of ideas on teaching.  The new faculty orientation at Drexel, and another symposium two weeks later, were filled with new ideas about teaching.  I sometimes forget that it has been 10+ years since I was an undergraduate student, and many things have changed.  Here are some of the ideas I am bouncing around in my head for this course:
  • Lots of in-class quizzes: This is partly to encourage attendance, but it also provides feedback, both to me (about how well I am conveying the concepts in class) and to the students (about how well they are learning said concepts).  "Frequent low-stakes grading" is the education-speak term for it.
  • Lots of assignments: I want to keep the assignments short, and intersperse the traditional problem sets with short reading, research, and writing assignments.  This is an unorthodox approach for a mechanics of materials class.  Why am I doing it?  Because I want to engage the students and get them thinking about the applications of what they are doing.  I will also be grading relatively leniently -- the students will get minimum 75% credit for attempting the homework (what constitutes "attempting" is a bit subjective).  This is another example of frequent low-stakes grading.
  • Every example will be from biomedical engineering: This is the hardest part of the class.  All mechanics of materials textbooks use civil or mechanical engineering examples.  A few biomechanics textbooks have mechanics of materials content, but it is too conceptually simple, and even in those texts, some of the examples are abstracted far away from biomedical engineering.  One of the things I noticed when I was an undergraduate bioengineer was how poorly professors integrated biology into our engineering courses.  That is one thing I really, really want to succeed at.
  • Writing on the blackboard versus Powerpoint: I don't think Powerpoint is a good medium for this type of class, and I like the blackboard because it makes you pace yourself.  At the same time, students often complain (and rightfully so) about the inconsistency and illegibility of hand-written text.  This is something I am really thinking about.
I am sure I will continue to post about this class.  Since it is a new course, one of my own design, though covering a traditional topic area, I really want it to go well and enrich our students.  We shall see!

A Christmas Miracle

They're already calling it the "Miracle at the New Meadowlands" or the "New Miracle at the Meadowlands," but any way you slice it, yesterday's Eagles-Giants thriller was amazing.  It featured the most flawlessly executed onsides kick I have ever seen (the Saints' onsides kick to open the 2nd half in the Super Bowl was better because of the situation, but not in its execution) and the second-greatest Eagles play I've seen personally (not from highlights or NFL Films), in DeSean Jackson's walk-off 65-yard punt return.  Incredible.

Wait, you ask, what is the greatest Eagles play you've seen?  Eric Allen's 94-yard interception return against the Jets in 1993, hands down.  If anyone can find a video for this play, I'd love to watch it again. 

I am still smiling about this game :)

Sunday, December 12, 2010


That is what chef Marc Vetri's tasting menu at Vetri is called.  My friend and I went there on Saturday night, and what an experience it was.  To preface, Vetri is in the very top echelon of Philadelphia restaurants; I would hazard to guess that most critics, and people familiar with the Philly restaurant scene, would place it in the top five without a second thought.  I have been wanting to go for several years, and this dinner was a celebration of sorts -- I hadn't seen my friend in two years, and she and I both recently started our first real jobs this September.

The degustazione is a multi-course meal, prepared using seasonal ingredients, and in our case, complemented by a selection of wines paired with each individual dish.  Below is a picture of the menu; we were given a copy of the evening's menu, along with two huckleberry muffins for breakfast, which is pretty awesome if you ask me:

We did not have everything on the menu, just almost everything.  Again, nearly each dish (not course) was paired with a different wine (all from Italty).  Here is a quick rundown:
  • Prosecco as an aperitif
  • Three amuse-bouche: burrata wrapped in Kindai tuna; purple cauliflower dressed with olive oil; and brussel sprouts cooked with brown butter
  • Shrimp a la plancha on zolfini beans -- paired with a 2006 Cantina Terlano Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige)
  • Persimmon and scallop crudo -- paired with a 2009 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner (Alto Adige), a Riesling/Trollinger hybrid
  • Sweet onion crepe -- paired with a 2008 Paitin Dolcetto d'Alba (Piedmont)
  • Smoked pork shank, barley, and cabbage soup -- paired with a 2008 Tenuta Luisa Cabernet Franc (Friuli)
  • Spinach gnocchi -- paired with a 2007 Bramosia Chianti Classico (Tuscany)
  • Farfalle with lentil veloute and kale -- paired with a 2006 Iuli Barbera del Monferrato Superiore (Piedmont)
  • Cardoon risotto with castelmagno cheese -- paired with a 2008 Germano Ettore Nebbiolo d'Alba (Piedmont)
  • Pork belly ravioli with apples and brown butter -- paired with a 2008 Farnese Pecorino (Abruzzo)
  • Venison (cooked sous vide) with pear crema -- paired with a 2004 Bussola "L'errante" (Veneto), a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend
  • Dover sole alla mugnaia ("miller's style") with spinach -- paired with a 2009 Niedrist Sauvignon Terlaner (Alto Adige)
  • A mango creme brulee as an intermezzo, pre-dessert!
  • Chocolate polenta souffle and butterscotch pudding with chocolate and streusel -- both paired with a 2009 Elio Perrone "Bigaro" frizzante rosato dessert wine (Piedmont)
So, if you include the amuse-bouche, we had 16 different dishes and 12 different wines over a three hour dining experience -- that borders on ridiculous (your borders for the ridiculous may vary).  My favorite dishes were the pork belly ravioli (ldo), pork shank soup, the spinach gnocchi, and the shrimp.  My favorite wines were the Germano Ettore Nebbiolo d'Alba and the Bussola "L'errante".  But I enjoyed every dish and every wine.   

Fantastic dining company, wonderful food and drink, a very knowledgeable, friendly, and sometimes quirky staff, all resulted in one of the best dining experiences I've had.  And now I feel ready to make a top-10 Philly restaurant list -- watch for that post soon!  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pennypack Park

Another weekend, another hike.  This time I headed to northeast Philadelphia, in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood, to Pennypack Park.

Also, my hiking reports are going all metric!  It is part of my own private war against the US customary system.

Pennypack Park
Location: Philadelphia, PA (Rhawnhurst)
Description: An easy hike along the Pennypack Creek.
Distance: 12.1 km
Net Elevation Change: 52 m
Duration: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Technical Difficulty: Easy
Physical Difficulty: Easy
Rating (out of 5): 2.5

Much like Wissahickon Valley Park, Pennypack Park is part of the Fairmount Park System and is nestled within the city of Philadelphia.  Unlike Wissahickon, this particular trail is less traveled.  The hike itself follows the Pennypack Creek -- going out I followed the horse trail, which is higher and dirt, and coming back I walked along the multiuse trail, which is paved and usually right beside the creek.

After the fall colors and variety of Wissahickon Valley Park, I was expecting more from Pennypack.  The hike is very flat, and the fall colors were very muted.  Is this the effects of being just one week later, or maybe the lesser variety of tree species here (it seemed that way, to my untrained eye).  Being an out-and-back hike, I was worried that the return trip would be boring, but the difference in eye level between the horse trail and multiuse path made it rather pleasant.  Overall, an average hike, but certainly a decent option for being in the city limits.

Check out the path on Google Maps, created using my Droid X and the My Tracks app.

As an aside, I stopped at a Brazilian buffet place in Rhawnhurst called Cantinho Brasileiro Restaurante, based on that Yelp review.  It was really good!  Everyone was, surprise, Brazilian, and seemed only to speak Portuguese.  The food included several excellent braised meat dishes, an odd salad, a variety of potatoes, and something that looked and tasted like the Brazilian version of pico de gallo.  Add a guarana soda, and it was a neat and tasty experience.  If you happen to be out in Rhawnhurst, give this place a try!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Heart Burgers

All the American ex-pats (and former ex-pats) will agree with me -- burgers in continental Europe are suckface.  Since returning to the US, I've found myself eating far more burgers than I ever did before, even when I was living in beef-loving Texas.  Since this blog is rapidly evolving into a "what has Adrian eaten recently" deal, I thought I would drop some more of my mad gastronomical stylings on you.

Here are the best burgers I've had in the Philadelphia area.  I don't claim they are the best in Philly, since I still have a long way to go to try them all.  These burgers share one thing in common -- being juicy, fatty, and actually cooked medium-rare -- and I can't understate how important that is.  Well-done burgers are for chumps.

Belgian Cafe -- I mentioned this one in a previous blog post.  I had the Bruegl, which comes with a really nice sharp cheddar.  The sharp cheddar made this one stand out, along with the fantastic selection of beer to go along with it.
Bobby's Burger Palace -- This Bobby Flay joint cooks a mean burger.  I've tried several, but my favorite on their menu so far is the LA Burger (though November's Burger of the Month is topped with a fried egg...mmm, fried egg).
Village Whiskey -- In addition to a very nice selection of bourbon, Jose Garces's whiskey bar also boasts a nice burger.  The straight up Village Burger can be topped with all sorts of things, or you can opt for the $26 Whiskey King, topped with bleu cheese, bacon, and FOIE GRAS.  I was there for lunch, so I had the regular burger, but I am definitely going to return to ruin my cardiovascular system.  The burger was flavorful and given a heavy (and appreciated) dose of salt.  To top it all off, they have fries fried in duck fat, basically a new twist on the French classic pommes de terre sarladaise.

I recommend all three burgers, both on their own and with the various sides and beverages that make each place stand out.  And I will continue to eat burgers until I make up for my four year burger exile.

Monday, November 15, 2010

These Boots are Made for Walking

I went on my first hike in Philadelphia yesterday, and what a perfect day for it: the morning was just a bit on the chilly side, but within an hour it is sunny with highs in the 60s.

Those that know me from Lausanne know that I have a passion for hiking.  I only discovered this passion when I moved to Switzerland -- Houston, surprisingly, did not awake any yearnings to go hiking.  As much as Philadelphia is better than Switzerland in terms of the food scene (especially the sandwiches), so is Switzerland that much better than Philadelphia and its environs for hiking.  Nevertheless, I decided I would give it my best try, and purchased AMC's Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia to guide my explorations of the hiking possibilities within driving distance of the city.  My first hike was through Wissahickon Valley Park, a beautiful section of Fairmount Park near Chestnut Hill.  I wish now I had gone earlier, as the fall foliage was still wonderful, but clearly a mere shadow of what must have been a striking display in October.  So, without further ado, my first hiking report!

Wissahickon Valley Park
Location: Philadelphia, PA (Chestnut Hill)
Description: A hike along and through the forested Wissahickon Valley gorge.
Distance (approximate): 7 miles
Elevation Change (approximate): 250 feet
Duration: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Technical Difficulty: Easy to medium (a few steep sections, could be tricky in wet or icy conditions)
Physical Difficulty: Easy
Rating (out of 5): 3.5

I enjoyed this hike a lot, partly because of the weather, partly because it had been too long since I had gotten outdoors like this, and partly because Wissahickon Valley is a beautiful sanctuary of forests and water that sits within the city of Philadelphia.  I saw many people with dogs, all off leashes, but the good news the dogs were very well behaved, and either having too much fun running about to bother with you, or were very friendly.

The first third of the hike heads south from the trail head (just off Germantown Avenue), and is probably the most beautiful and quiet portion of the hike.  The last two thirds is more taxing, and passes near and even through settled areas, so the sounds of people, cars, and chainsaws interrupt the idyllic surroundings.  I will definitely go back and check it out in other seasons.  Go here to see more pictures from my hike.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fall is Upon Us!

No duh.  According to Wikipedia, the autumnal (or September) equinox occurred on September 23 at 3:09 UTC.  So 'upon us' is a bit of an understatement.  Strangely, however, because of living in the city, being so absorbed with work, and warm weather (until just recently), I hadn't noticed.

I finally noticed on Saturday, when I drove out to the suburbs to see my dad.  Because I left the urban confines of Philadelphia and drove along the river, then through Fairmount Park, and finally out into the suburbs along Montgomery Avenue, I finally got my first memorable eyeful of fall foliage.  Combined with the crispness of the air this weekend, and it finally felt like fall.

This is a big deal, for me, mainly because I haven't experienced what I consider to be autumn for, oh, ten years now.  Six autumnal equinoxes in Houston, where there is no real change of season, beyond going from "ass hot" to "not hot", and four in Switzerland, where the change is, at least according to me, so far less dramatic that it practically goes by unnoticed (at least until I think back and reflect on it).  To end my little ramble, fall is my favorite season, and I am glad that (a) I finally noticed it happening, and (b) that there was something beautiful to notice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Belgian Dip

Just got back from lunch at the Belgian Cafe, at 21st and Green Streets.  I'll make this quick: fantastic beer selection (I had a very tasty Left Hand Milk Stout, from Colorado), good pomme frites (came with remoulade and smoked ketchup, mmm), and the burgers are killer.  And it is less than 10 blocks from my apartment.  This should make my cardiologist happy.

No, I don't really have a cardiologist.

Oodles o' Noodles

Just wanted to give a shout out to the Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House in Philadelphia's Chinatown.  I stopped there for a quick dinner last night.  They make Lanzhou-style la mian, real handmade noodles, and this makes a world of difference.  The bowls are big and pretty cheap ($6), and it tastes just like Chinese soup noodles should taste.  I had the typical Lanzhou-style beef noodles (niu rou mian), but there is a variety on tap.

Since I was alone, I had to sit at a large round table across from a couple and their young son.  They were very nice people, who were also clearly enjoying the noodles.  The woman recommended the noodles in peanut sauce, said it was the best she had ever had.   

Talking Science

I want to share with you two science experiences I had in the last 10 days.

The first occurred at the recently held Biomedical Engineering Society meeting in Austin, Texas.  Though the highlight for me was seeing many of my friends from Rice and EPFL, I also enjoyed a number of the talks.  What occurred to me, though, as I was sitting in yet another talk, is how important communication is in science, particularly in the form of presentations (whether a conference talk, a department seminar, or a plenary), and how woefully inadequate we as scientists generally are at preparing and giving them.  Black font on dark backgrounds, tiny and unlabeled graphs, spelling mistakes...and these are just the distracting Powerpoint slides.  The students, at least, seem to practice their presentations, though their inexperience and nervousness shows through, but the more senior people often seem to just wing it.  And most are not good enough to do so.

For some time, I thought that maybe most of the science at conferences is just average, with a few superlative examples shining through.  That may be the case.  But I am starting to wonder if perhaps it is just that so few scientists succeed at presenting their work at conferences, and what I take for average science is actually just mediocre presentation skills.  Clearly I need to become better at separating the two, but I hope that as I move forward in my career, I make sure to spend a lot of time and energy on improving my scientific communication skills, and those of my students and post-docs.

The second science experience occurred yesterday, when I met with several other professors to discuss two grant proposals that we want to collectively submit.  I was surprised by how much each of us knew about our respective fields, how little each of us knew about each other's fields, and how much I enjoyed the exchange. This interaction of ideas and scientific viewpoints may become one of my favorite parts of this job.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wo ist die Wissenschaft?

This is a question I find myself asking...myself (though usually in English) quite frequently these days.  Since starting as a professor, I've done little in the way of what I would call 'science,' and a lot in the way of what I would call 'administrative drudgery.'  Trying to decipher the Machiavellian machinations of the procurement office is my current challenge.  I thought I would have more time to spend on, you know, trying to cure cancer.

Admittedly, I expected this, and I am just starting out, so the lab isn't ready.  But still -- why is the life of a biomedical engineering professor permeated with so much non-science?  This is a topic that I will definitely revisit.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Philadelphia food scene

I think nationally, and certainly internationally, people don't realize how good the food scene is in Philadelphia.  It's not just the quality, but also the diversity -- from hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops and streetside food trucks to outrageously trendy restaurants and white tablecloth fine dining.  I want to highlight a few of the places I've visited in just the last week:

Capogiro: Their gelato is fantastic, the best I've had since Perche No in Florence.  Flavors change daily and vary between their four locations: two in Center City, one by Penn, and one on Passyunk.  Highlights: sweet basil, wildflower honey, and gianduja.

DiBruno Bros: After living in Switzerland, I've developed a real taste for fine cheeses and charcuterie.  This shop in the Italian Market is going to be my salvation.  Something to try: duck prosciutto made in Warminster, PA.

Giwa: A small Korean restaurant near Rittenhouse Square that I recently visited with my friend Katie for lunch.  They have a really nice dol sot bibim bap.

Paesano's: I'd heard so much about this sandwich shop (actually two locations, one near the Italian Market, one on Girard) that I had to go.  After all, who can resist the Arista, a roast pork sandwich piled high with roast suckling pig.  I plan on going back -- I have, conservatively, five more sandwiches I absolutely must try.

Nan: This is a Thai-French BYO at the western edge of Penn's campus.  Really nice food (my dad's black cod was expertly prepared), with a nice neighborhood feel to it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Welcome to my blog!

Even though I am about five years behind the times, I've finally decided to start a blog.

Why, exactly?  Not sure.  It would be a bit narcissistic of me to think that people on the Intarwebs would care about what I have to say.  At the same time, since I feel like I have something to say, in the 21st century, the blog appears to be the medium of choice.

The big focus of my blog will be two-fold: chronicling my return and readjustment to life in America after four years in Switzerland, and giving some insight into the travails of wet-behind-the-ears assistant professor.  Along the way, I'll probably have a thing or two to say about food, restaurants, travel, science, hiking, and games.