Materials Girl: Upwards and onwards

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Posted on behalf of Materials Girl

The day has arrived: fall quarter has begun and I am officially a grad student! I have long since left the comfort of teeming undergraduate dormitories and dining halls, in lieu of bare graduate apartments and my own kitchen. (Next step: avoiding frozen food and making time to cook up edible chemistry.) In the shiny new engineering building, there is a desk waiting for me alongside the other first years. Soon I shall take my research from the realm of theories & literature into that of wet-synthesis & laboratories! With my departmental transition from chemistry to Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), I am more of a “materials girl” than before.

My academic world will primarily consist of three categories: (1) graduate courses, (2) undergrad classes to TA, and — of course — (3) the everpresent job of scientific research.

1. My financial aid contract requires a full-time classload per 10-week quarter. So, I am enrolled in the obligatory [difficult] introductory MSE course, another on proposal writing, and slew of seminars. Nothing particularly new and exciting just yet.

2. To some, lecturing, presentations, grading, and all the works of teaching are trivial. To me, they are all important. With the undergraduate viewpoint still fresh (in which graduate students are expected to know everything and be available 24/7 to answer questions), I aspire to be one of those wonderfully enlightening, inspiring Teaching Assistants. Past experiences with terrible TAs make me wonder…

Deep down, there exists a nagging phobia that my chemistry-tuned background will be insufficient to support the inquiries of engineering students. The MSE class I will teach this term is a one of many core engineering requirements; statistics — and personal confessions — say that most of my students will be more concerned with lesser branches in the school of engineering. (Civil engineering? Who needs that?) How do quiet, calm, low-key individuals convey a passion for chemistry and materials science to students who don’t want to be there? (And contrary to what online ramblings may imply, in person I am quite verbally reserved.)

Any doubts aside, I am excited to wield power over undergrad— I mean, to teach. With my limited teaching/tutoring experience as aid, I can help cultivate minds and fend off requests for deadline extensions. We are the future!

3. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope for miracles. Or at least a stack of papers for Nature to publish. ??

On a side note, it cannot be avoided that being a minority ensures that I stand out — even literally, as the department seems largely populated by short Asian males*. It’s not a bad thing, but I do wonder what judgments, expectations, and presuppositions await those with double X chromosomes.

*Let the record show that I am 1.68 m [= 5 ft 6 inches for those who like Imperial units and dislike mental arithmetic. NW], Vietnamese, and find it entirely appropriate to point out the common lack of great stature among my fellow Asians.

A flood of questions is before me: “what happened?”, “what now?”, “what am I doing?!”, “what if…”. Hopefully the journey will be more enjoyable than tedious (it’s already established that the road will be painful). For now, however, I must return to begging for fund— I mean, writing scholarship essays and proposals.


P.S.: My summer was spent doing little chemistry and a lot of art: throwing in a ceramics studio 8 hours a day, using an entire wall to paint a mural in my bedroom, and visiting museums. Should I feel guilty?

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