Creating a sense of belonging is critical to keeping people in science and engineering. There has been some really wonderful work showing this. Belonging

It is incredibly easy to feel isolated. The work is extremely challenging, and when you step into the lab, everyone seems to know what is going on, except you, because you’re the new person.

Most of us who stayed in science had many people along the way who helped us. When I was working on my undergraduate thesis, I wouldn’t have made or tested a single sample if it wasn’t for Jong-Ren Lee.

Jong-Ren worked weird hours. He came in around 4 or 5 and worked through the night. He then would go home and look after his kids while his wife went to work. I really don’t know when he slept, but when he was in lab, even though he was working on a totally different project and had to be bone tired, he showed me the ropes of making and testing materials. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have had a first bit of data. No one asked him to help. He just did.

Belonging is critical, and feeling like one has a clue is a small part of that. The seemingly small gesture of helping one evening or many evenings as Jong-Ren did, changes everything.


The Oral Exam

The morning of my oral exam for my PhD, I went ice skating. Ice skating is one of my favorite things, and it was incredibly quiet and calming.

10 minutes before my qualifier, I was handed a piece of paper with 10 questions. I got to pick where we started. I picked one, and I walked into the room. In my department, at that time, students had one hour qualifiers where they were asked questions in their discipline to see how much they knew and how well they could think of their feet. The idea was to push students to see how far they would get before they couldn’t answer questions. It was hugely intimidating.

When I entered the room, three faculty were there. I had switched disciplines from ceramics to polymers, and one of the three asked what I was doing since I was a ceramist. I explained that I had switched, and he just laughed and wished me luck. I laughed, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I had practiced, a lot, with my colleague. He and I went back to back, and we both passed. We were told we were the most different students to work together. He could relate anything in the universe to the Flory-Huggins equation. It was a tour de force. I could talk about synthesizing things. (It was all talk. I still struggle with purity and yield.)

Tomorrow, my own students have their qualifiers. One of them stopped by my office. He’s really nervous. He’s brilliant. He should do fine. Our oral qualifier is designed to see if and how well students can design experiments to answer questions. He’s great at it.

Over the years, regardless of the format, the biggest reason students struggle is nerves. My experience is that nerves never go away, but practice and rehearsal make a world of difference. For some, though, being able to cope with nerves can take years of practice. Qualifiers tend to need to happen relatively early in one’s degree process. One doesn’t want to not qualify after being in the degree for 3-4 years. Then what? But, I wonder if qualifiers are a good thing or not.

I learned more during my qualifier preparation than at any time before or after. My students are practicing more than they ever have to be ready for tomorrow. What I question is whether they should have to leave the program if they can’t design experiments on their feet. I wonder if we can have different assessments at different times. I just wonder. We spend so much time working to make sure we admit strong students with a high probability of success. Do we or they benefit from a qualifier that can lead to their expulsion from the program? Is thinking on one’s feet critical to a PhD or not?

Why be a scientist?

When I was 16, I got my first job interning at the Naval Research Lab. There is a summer program that helps bring high school students into labs there. I interviewed for a couple of positions, but I wasn’t qualified. I could only code in BASIC, and they wanted people who could code in FORTRAN. It was a while ago.

I was hired with a team of other high school students to do two things– take aluminum panels apart that looked a lot like airplane wings and to polish aluminum pieces until they were perfect mirrors so the scientists could look at the structure of the metal in a microscope.

Pull the aluminum apart was loud, smelly, and hot. We did it in a loading area with a bandsaw and a machine that grabbed and ripped things apart while recording the forces needed to do so (a tensile tester or instron machine.) Polishing the metals was cool in temperature but mind numbing. The mind numbing aspect was a killer, because if one didn’t pay attention, one messed up. We knew it was going to be a long summer when we found a box of trashy novels with a note that said, “Read these out loud. It’s all that kept us going. –Last years’ interns.”

Within one day, I was bored. I went to the boss and asked if there was anything else I might do. He didn’t say anything, but the next morning, I met Dr. Patricia Trzaskoma. She was an electrochemist, and she let me work side by side with her studying corrosion. I still pulled things apart and polished them, but in between, I learned about electrochemistry, IV curves, and how to set up and run experiments. We used a plotter to record results, and one of my jobs was to sit there and mark the data at 3 minute intervals. But, I also got to plot up the data and see how different dopants affected the electrochemical potential. I learned how that related to corrosion and Pat took me to the scanning electron microscope so I could see the structure of the metal before it corroded and after. I loved being able to see the science from the start to the finish.

Even though I was a seriously annoying high school student, Pat treated me like a colleague. She taught me the basics of electrochemistry, but she also taught be that I belonged in science by how she included me in everything she was doing. When she moved positions, I moved with her, and thanks to her, I got to learn a whole host of cool things.