Recently, Sarah and I participated in a STEM Career Day event at Hazel Wolf K-8 School in Seattle. We were asked to explain to a group of middle school students what we do and why we do it.
While “grad student” is not technically a career (although some people try to make it into one), I liked having the opportunity to explain what grad school is. When I was in middle school, I had a vague idea that there was more school after college and that you could somehow be a “doctor” in a non-medical field, but that was about it. I didn’t know that I could get paid to be in a chemistry Ph. D program or that I would be a student for five years despite only taking classes for one year. Even in college, when I did undergraduate research and talked to grad students, I didn’t really know how grad school worked until junior year, after attending an info session hosted by my department. I hope the students we talked to will be more informed than I was.
I also wanted to emphasize the difference between experiments done in science classes and in research labs. In classes, you’re using hands-on activities to gain a better understanding of some concept, but your teacher and textbooks already know the right answer. In research labs, it’s often the case that no one in the world knows the right answer or has done your experiment before, and you’re creating new knowledge instead of learning stuff that’s already known. The Illustrated Guide to a Ph D, by Matt Might, provides a great visual description of this idea. This is one of the things I love about science, but sometimes I lose sight of it because I’ve been bogged down in the day-to-day challenges. Sometimes, taking a step back helps me remember why I’m here.
After explaining what grad school is for, we talked about how we got into chemistry in particular. This was fascinating (maybe more so for me than for the students…) because it prompted me to reflect on my own interests and motivations. I didn’t have much of a relationship with chemistry growing up – I remember taking a summer class where we made slime and burned colorful metal salts, and I remember learning about the periodic table and being assigned to do a project on holmium (I wanted a more exciting element, or at least one that I could actually get a sample of). But I liked all of my classes, and my interests were all over the place. It wasn’t obvious that I would end up in chemistry, or even in science – although now, I can’t picture myself doing anything else.
At the beginning of our presentation, we asked the students what they thought of when they heard the words chemistry (mixing things, explosions, potions class in Harry Potter), nanotechnology (really small), and solar energy (solar panels). We returned to these concepts later to talk about what we do in our research. Sarah discussed her work with flexible solar cells and nanocrystal inks, while I told the students about quantum dots and using light and color to learn about the energy of materials. We showed them a flexible solar panel built into a bag, nanocrystal inks for printing CZTS solar cells, and luminescent solar concentrator films. I know that I was really interested in solar energy and the environment when I was their age, and I hope we sparked their interest as well. It’s also exciting to think about how far the field has developed in the past decade or so, and how far it will advance by the time these students would be in grad school (just look at the NREL efficiency chart for different types of solar cell technologies!).
I enjoy doing outreach activities like this not only because I get to share my knowledge of science with people who are excited about learning, but also because it helps me gain perspective on my research and career.