Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Dr. Dalia Al-Zebdeh: Slamming Stereotypes and Breaking Barriers

I first met Dalia when we were both students at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I was a chemical engineering undergrad and she was a biomedical engineering grad student. To be honest with you, I don’t even know how on earth we started talking, but we hit it off instantaneously. She has been a source of inspiration and guidance for me ever since.

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After I finished my master’s at Cornell and returned to Wayne State to teach, I was so happy that Dalia and I would be back together again, even though she was not far from graduating with her doctorate and would soon be leaving. Still, the time I had with my friend was invaluable.

To other people, we seem like an unlikely pair of friends. We’re both women in engineering, so that part makes sense as to why we stuck by each other’s sides. But here’s the “funny” part: she is a Palestinian Muslim, and I am a former Christian, soon-to-be Jewish woman. To most people, especially to those within our own circles, that combination does not yield friendship. Thankfully, we’ve proved them wrong.

Having grown up in a very sheltered and conservative environment, I had little knowledge of religion, culture, and political beliefs outside of my own (or rather my family’s). Meeting Dalia was like a breach in the dam of my own ignorance.

I was curious about her life and beliefs as a Muslim woman, and she encouraged me to ask as many questions as I wanted. I told her about the second-hand information I’d received about Islam and the Quran, and she patiently and very kindly corrected those statements, reminding me that there will always be people in every belief system who are extremists but to not judge the whole system based on a few exceptions. Dalia was one of a handful of people who opened my eyes to the world around me.

We would speak at length about our respective faiths, amazed at how many similarities exist between them, and even took on the Palestine/Israel subject, something many people from opposite sides will avoid like the Plague. However, we have enough respect for each other to hear and take to heart what the other person has to say. I learned to see things through her eyes, which has been a blessing for me. And the more I learned about her, the more inspired I became.

Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, which sadly resulted in harsh treatment, Dalia moved to Jordan where she pursued her undergraduate degree at Jordan University for Science and Technology before moving to the U.S. for her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Her dissertation focused on hepatic tissue engineering, which deals with using healthy liver tissue to regrow the liver instead of undergoing a transplant. After completing her post-doctoral research at the Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University, she moved to research at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. There she is fulfilling the dream she has always had: “make human implants and organs to help people who have no other options.”

When I asked her what was the source of her inspiration for pursuing this field, she told me that in her home country, she is the source of inspiration. This did not surprise me, though. Here is a woman who was born in a land that, sadly, most of the world doesn’t even recognize as its own country. Not long after moving with her family to Jordan, she had to leave them behind in order to accomplish her goals…alone.

I’m lucky. My parents live an hour away from me, and I can visit them most weekends. And if I can’t visit them, I can easily call them without having to consider a time difference. If I’m having a bad day or just need someone to listen to me, talking to Mom or Dad is a cinch.

Not so for Dalia.

I have so much respect and admiration for people who move here from other countries. Not only are they navigating a new language, but also they are trying to adjust to a new cultural dynamic, both popular and academic. I had considered moving to Israel for my Ph.D. but figured that starting life in a new country six thousand miles away from home with a seven-hour time difference and jumping back into a demanding graduate program would not work well in my favor. Yet Dalia has made it work for her.

I asked her if she found it difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S., especially in this post-9/11 era. She said that while she was comfortable in the Detroit/Dearborn area, which has a high concentration of Muslims, she feels she stands out more outside of the metro-Detroit area, especially at job interviews. She has expressed her concern over being rejected for positions for which she is well-suited because her hijab makes it clear she is a Muslim. I wish I could reassure her by saying, “It’s 2019! People are so much more educated now.”

But, unfortunately, that is not the case.

Just last year, Electroimpact paid almost a $500,000 settlement because its founder refused to hire Muslims, whom he considered to be “terrorists.” In Sweden, a woman won a lawsuit over being discriminated against because she wouldn’t shake the male interviewer’s hand. A court ruled in another Muslim woman’s favor when she was passed over for a job at Abercrombie and Fitch because she wears a hijab. These court cases all occurred within the last four years. Clearly, we are not as well educated as we should be.

But through the family separation, the new culture, and the lingering prejudice, Dalia has made herself invaluable in her field of research and carries herself with an air of confidence and grace. I have been blessed not only by her friendship but also by the truly genuine and dedicated example she personifies.

To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.?

I knew I wanted a Ph.D. since I was in middle school. That’s pretty much the only thing I was ever sure of regarding a career at that point in my life. (In fact, I wasn’t sure about much of anything in my career until my late twenties, but that’s for another post.) When I told my father about my desire for a doctorate, he said, “I think it would be a waste if you didn’t get a Ph.D.”

I had always been a serious student. Learning everything I could was always important to me. Even though I wasn’t considering going into a STEM field, I knew I wanted to take physics and calculus while I was in high school. I figured (incorrectly) that since I wouldn’t continue with science and math that I might as well take advantage of all the information I could receive while the opportunity was available. Ironically it was during that year when I took those courses that I decided to go into chemical engineering. Even though I had balked at the idea when my father suggested it to me, I have never regretted that decision.

When I was in my second year of college, I started seriously considering what I needed to do to start preparing for graduate school. I was fortunate enough to find a faculty mentor who informed me about all the intricacies of applying and surviving grad school. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that tuition is covered for doctoral students in STEM fields, and that they are also provided with health insurance and a stipend for living expenses. Essentially, it was a job. Not a well-paying job, but a job nonetheless that would prepare me for my goal of becoming a professor, which would come with much nicer benefits.

I was lucky to find someone early in my undergraduate education who gave me the low-down on all things grad-school related. However, many people aren’t aware of what is involved in getting a Ph.D. Many aren’t aware of the financial benefits available and assume they have to pay for that education themselves. Others haven’t been told that research is vital to grad school and that should they choose the academic route, they need to join a lab as soon as possible during their undergraduate years. The more experience, the better the prospects, especially since the earlier you start increases your likelihood of being published and/or presenting at conferences.

Personally, I think it’s important for professors and academic advisers to inform students of their options early in their undergraduate careers. Don’t just discuss the various routes a specific major can take. In chemical engineering, we were told we would be valuable in petroleum, materials, pharmaceutical, and environmental fields, each of which have a myriad of subgroups, and that we would even be great candidates for law or medical school. Graduate school was mentioned, but I don’t recall anyone ever laying out the details. And when I started teaching and would discuss options the students had available to them, I realized just how much the university system was failing them.

So I’m going to try to remedy that with some tips and encouragement for all of you, whether you have considered grad school or not. Please, be open-minded about this option that can open so many doors to you.

Who might want to consider grad school?

It’s so true that graduate school isn’t for everybody, but I don’t believe that it’s because someone is incapable of it. To me, it all comes down to desire. If you find something about which you are passionate and are willing to focus most of your time singularly on that subject, then grad school is definitely a viable option for you. One of the best ways to determine this is to join a research lab at your university as soon as possible.

Go to your department’s website and browse through the faculty web pages. They will list their research statements with some background information on current projects in which they are working. If you find something that looks interesting, email that professor and ask to set up a time to meet; express interest in possibly joining their lab.

Warning: Many undergraduate research positions are voluntary. Unless the professor has some grant money specifically for undergraduate research assistants, most likely you won’t be paid for your work (unless you can apply for an undergraduate research grant). However, the long-term benefits supersede the lack of monetary compensation. If you need a paid job, take one on the side. One of the benefits of undergrad research is that it’s flexible around your schedule. It might seem like a lot to take on, but such is the way of college. You’ll have to make a lot of sacrifices in college (and in grad school), but the payoff in the long run is worth it. The trick is to keep your eyes on the end goal and not be distracted by the short-term effects.

What does undergraduate research entail?

This depends greatly on the lab you join and the project you’ve been given. But in general, when you start, you will not be heavily involved in the actual research part of your project. Instead you will spend most of your time learning the techniques and the different safety protocols involved with the lab’s projects. This can take a couple months, but be patient. Eventually, you will have the skills needed to start digging into your own project.

Prior experience is usually not required to work in a lab as an undergrad. As long as you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn, the professor will be happy to have you work in her or his lab.

From the start, you will be paired with a graduate student who will train you and help you start your research. The faculty adviser rarely spends time in the lab and usually only makes brief appearances to check on progress. Most likely you will meet with your adviser in her or his office on a regular basis and attend meetings with the entire group. Both of these typically occur every week, but this depends on the group and the adviser’s schedule.

Warning: Research is an acquired skill. It can take time to develop not only the skills but also the mindset necessary to make progress on answering the question your project asks. In a classroom setting, usually you are given questions for which there is an answer by following certain steps. Research is more open-ended, and there is no guarantee that there is an achievable answer at that time. Some projects fail. It’s not a reflection on you or the adviser; that’s just the way of research: try something, see why it failed, try a different approach or attempt a different problem, and repeat.

If you start in a lab in your second year of undergrad, you increase your chances of being published and/or presenting at a conference, which are HUGE bonus points on grad school applications. While these aren’t required to be accepted into grad school, they will make you stand out as they demonstrate you have developed the skills required to do good research.

What Does It Take to Get into a Graduate Program?

Each graduate program is different, but they all look at research experience, GPA, GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores, work experience, volunteer and leadership experience, and any awards, honors, publications, and presentations. The higher the graduate program ranks, the harder it is to gain admission. For instance, I’ve heard that MIT rarely accepts anyone with a GPA below 3.9. While I have no idea if it’s true, it wouldn’t surprise me since it is one of the best, and therefore one of the most competitive, schools in the world.

Many students worry about their GPAs and/or GRE scores. (FYI, depending on the program you plan to study, you may have to take a program-specific GRE instead of the general one.) While both of those criteria are important, there are other things that can compensate for it, such as solid research in the form of a paper (or a few papers), internships and co-ops, research grants for undergrads, etc. Some of my students even started their own businesses while working on their bachelor’s and I know of one with two patents pending from work she did as an intern.

Actually, GRE scores are starting to be considered less and less. I know in my department some professors studied the relationship between GRE scores and the students’ progress during their Ph.D. studies and found no correlation between the two. In fact, some students who only do average in their coursework as undergrads do some incredible research.

In addition to your GPA, GRE, and experience, you will need to obtain three recommendation letters (preferably from professors, one of whom should be your research adviser) and to write a personal statement regarding your research interests and your plans after graduate school.

Each aspect of your application package is important, but the admissions committee looks at everything as a whole. If your GPA isn’t quite where they’d like it to be but you have done outstanding research, the research will more than compensate for the GPA.

When Do Students Hear from Schools?

If you plan to start in the fall semester, you should hear back from schools anywhere between January and March. The deadline for accepting a school’s offer is mid-April.

The schools that have accepted you will normally invite you to come visit for a weekend (what is referred to as “recruitment weekend”). This will give you an opportunity to see the school, meet some of the faculty, speak to professors whose research seems interesting, learn what the department requires of Ph.D. students, and speak to graduate students about their experiences.

Take advantage of this opportunity, ESPECIALLY speaking with other graduate students. One of the things you will get to know doing undergraduate research is the type of environment in which you’d like to work. You will have a better understanding of what you would like in an adviser (i.e., someone who is more hands on or hands off, someone who is more readily available, someone who invests in mentoring, etc.). Talking with the faculty whose labs you’re considering will help give you an idea, but talking to their graduate students is ESSENTIAL. They can provide you with better details of the actual lab work, lab dynamics, and relationships with the adviser.

Keep in mind that if you do not get accepted into certain schools, do not think it’s because you’re not “good enough.” Perhaps your research interests don’t align with those of the professors who are able to take students. You may want to work for a professor who doesn’t have enough funding to take any students that year. You could have been neck-and-neck with another student and they could only choose one of you. Regardless of what happens, you will find a graduate program that works for you. And if you want to try again, go for it! It’s totally acceptable to wait another year. Find a job or keep doing research in the lab (or both) and have another go at it. Whatever happens, you just have to find a way to make it work.

What Happens in the First Year?

This depends on the school and the department. Pretty much everyone requires first-year students to take courses; most likely you won’t be doing much research that year. Some departments require research rotations (spending time in a professor’s lab for a semester and then switching to another lab the following semester). Some places require you to meet with different faculty and choose an adviser in the first term. Regardless of the requirements, utilize the opportunity as much as you can. You are free to meet with those professors as much as their time allows. Ask questions, read their papers, and, most importantly, SPEAK TO THEIR STUDENTS! Attend their group meetings and get to know the rhythm and vibe of the lab and how the students relate to the adviser.

Some places may require you to teach; others may not. While doing a good job teaching is important, keep in mind that the most important things during your first year are finding the right lab and performing well in your classes. GPA doesn’t normally matter in grad school after the first year, but if you don’t perform well at all, that might be problematic.

In some programs, students are required to do a qualifying exam at the end of the first year. This can come in many forms such as a review of your grades and of your research proposal; or it can include exams in your core courses. While everything in grad school is curved, a C is considered a failing grade. The B range is not ideal (although a B+ is not usually frowned upon). If your grades are averaging at a B or lower, your department may require some extra benchmarks before allowing you to proceed with a Ph.D.

But don’t despair. While graduate-level courses are difficult (and they are insanely difficult), it really is mostly a mind game. The professors are looking for the students who put their all into their work; it’s obvious who’s doing their best and who couldn’t care less. That impression will play a big role in determining your final grade.

Aside from joining a lab, attending classes, and possibly teaching, you will also be encouraged to apply for fellowships (which you can actually do in your last year of undergrad). The professor you are considering to be your adviser should be the one to guide you through that process. It’s very similar to the grad school application process but including an in-depth research proposal.

Beyond the First Year

Most likely you have completed most of your course requirements and can complete the rest at your leisure before you graduate (which will hopefully be no later than your fifth year). In your second or third year, you will have to complete a candidacy exam, which is typically more difficult than the actual dissertation defense. Candidacy usually involves a presentation before your committee (which includes your adviser and other professors that you’ve chosen to provide input to your research). This presentation will be on the work you’ve done to that point and the proposed path you want to take in your research.

After candidacy, you may have some other departmental requirements such as presenting to the department in a seminar or having a data meeting with your committee when you are close to graduating. Your adviser specifies the requirements for your graduation (outside of required coursework). For example, my thesis adviser at Cornell required all Ph.D. students to publish at least five papers before letting them graduate. Different advisers have different requirements, and may even vary their requirements depending on the student’s plans. If a professor has a student who wants to go the academic route, the adviser may require more papers from them. If the student wants to go into industry, two papers may be enough to graduate.

As you can see, there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to graduate school. Because each student is different and each student’s project is vastly different from another’s, there has to be fluidity in requirements and expectations. The most important thing is finding the right program and lab that work with your personality. Some people thrive in super-competitive environments, like MIT. Others prefer a more open environment like the University of Michigan. It all depends on you and what you want. Prestige can be important, but it should not be the main requirement in choosing a school. Finding the topics about which you’re passionate and make you look forward to going into your lab everyday is the most valuable requirement.

Doing a Ph.D. means you are becoming an expert in a very narrow field; that requires a great deal of focus and tenacity and patience. As I said before, some projects fail and the student is required to start over again with a brand new one. Discipline is essential since you will be expected at some point to take charge of your project and decide in which direction it should be taken. (This, however, must be done with your adviser’s approval since she or he is the one funding you.)

This is a very difficult path to take. But it is also the experience of a lifetime.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Allyson Martinek: Going through the Mud While Wearing a Tiara

As far back as I can remember, I have always listened to Detroit radio. (For those of you who live outside of the Motor City, we pronounce it “de-TROIT,” not “DEE-troit,” regardless of what the Pistons announcer says.) Growing up, I listened to the legendary Dick Purton and Purton’s People on 104.3 WOMC, the “Oldies Station.” When I started college, my best friend and I would carpool to campus (she provided breakfast and I provided coffee) and listen to 96.3 WDVD, co-hosted by the amazing Allyson Martinek.

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When I first started listening to the 96.3 morning show, the main reason I and so many other people tuned in every morning was because of Allyson. While I could only hear her, I felt that if we ever met, we would be instant friends. I could tell that she is joyful, caring, and supportive and a die-hard lover of life, all from the easygoing lilt of her voice and her infectious laugh. And when I did finally meet this diva of the Detroit radio waves, I discovered that she is all of that and more.

We met for dinner at the Arbor Brewing Company in Ypsilanti (they have AMAZING pizza and beer, BTW). Initially when we sat down, we chatted about our respective jobs and some of the obstacles we’ve faced, realizing just how similar the difficulties are for women across every profession. Eventually, we segued into discussions about religion and mental health…and didn’t stop for FIVE HOURS! And in that time, I was able to really understand this “unseen woman” who had been my carpool companion for years.

Before she debuted on Detroit radio, Allyson was convinced she would become a high-school English teacher. She had moved from Chicago to a small Michigan town which she describes as being similar to Mayberry and wanted to return to that setting of familiarity. However, as she was taking classes at Specks Howard Broadcasting School in order to transfer credits to Eastern Michigan University, she realized how much she enjoyed working in the media. Three days post-graduation, she received a job as a morning show host at 92.1 the Edge in East Lansing, which went to #2 after her first year of work.

However, like so many people, she still wondered if what she had chosen was really her true calling. Still considering Eastern Michigan, she resigned from 92.1 and sent in a tape to 96.3 to see if she would receive an offer, signaling her to continue in radio. She received a call the same day and was hired on the spot. And for the next twenty years, she worked to bring it to the #1 morning radio program in Detroit, something which Dick Purton himself told her and her co-hosts was now their torch to carry. Unfortunately for Allyson, the torch would leave her hands sooner than expected.

I remember driving to work in July of 2015 listening to the morning show, knowing that Allyson had been on vacation the previous week. But I was curious as to why I didn’t hear her on the show that day. No one had said anything (if she was sick or still on holiday); when I heard that the name of the show had been changed and no longer included Allyson’s name, I googled what had happened and was shocked to find that Allyson had been unceremoniously fired.

I and many other devoted fans were devastated by this news. Why would someone fire the life of the party, the heart and soul of the show? None of it made sense. And then to find out that she was struggling to find another radio job was equally outrageous. It wasn’t until November of 2016 that she was hired for the morning show at 100.3 WNIC.

I think that if I had been a man when I was out of work I would have been back to work immediately; I didn’t get as much credit for what we were doing because I was the woman. How much can a girl contribute? Sometimes the girl contributes everything. [There is] still [an] attitude toward women that they should be eye candy, laughing at your jokes, [etc]. They’re not recognized for being as important as they should be recognized as being. I went through it with TV and radio; not just myself [but] other women. The women were kicking the crap out of it, getting it done, [etc]. [The] decision makers are still mostly men. There’s still an uneven balance to it. How women look, how old women are: these are things they have to deal with; men don’t. Women seem to have a clock and a mirror attached to them.”

However, Allyson, with her typical come-what-may attitude, used every situation as a learning opportunity. During her fifteen months away from radio, she wrote her first book Living on Air, which describes the day she was fired and her struggle to rebound from the devastation, and is currently working on a sequel Welcome to Rock Bottom, a look into the ensuing months after she lost her job. But this has opened new doors for her. She realizes how much she loves to write and is even considering turning her books into an original series for Netflix or Amazon. When life hands you crap, grow a garden!

Her book also discusses how to find the humor in every situation, a code Allyson lives by. “[It’s an] inspiration that we all go through stuff. [We’re] deathly afraid for people to see us struggle and feel like failures; we don’t grow without failures. [We need to] take the stigma out of it [and] find the humor in struggles. [I] couldn’t afford a car [so I was] driving my mother’s minivan; [I] open glove box and find her handicap parking sticker. [I turned] lemon into lemonade because I have the best parking spot everywhere. I could have a woe-is-me attitude. Did I come this far to get kicked in the teeth for nothing? [But it was] supposed to happen. Follow through. [I’m] going through mud right now [but I] do it with a tiara. Be a role model; embrace the crap you’re handed. Show other people that it’s ok to be flawed and be down; we don’t all get to be up all the time.”

I’ve been there. At twenty-one I thought I had my whole life planned: go to grad school; get married; finish my doctorate; get a post-doctoral fellowship; become a tenured professor; have kids. I didn’t plan for a failed engagement, a nervous breakdown, a diagnosis of anxiety, an [incorrect] diagnosis of depression, a master’s degree, three years of teaching, a back-stabbing colleague, and a [correct] diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But I also didn’t plan to learn how strong I am, that my work at Cornell is leaving an impact, that I would fall in love with teaching, that I do want to continue working towards a doctorate, and that I am LOVING quantum dynamics. (Don’t judge me.) I’m now twenty-eight and I am nowhere near where my twenty-one-year-old self thought I would be; and I could not be more happy.

In spite of the way she was let go and the feelings of betrayal she felt, she says that she wouldn’t do anything differently. She acknowledges that she is more of a target because of her openness and willingness to help; but she also believes she is successful in radio because those characteristics have provided her with a unique talent: relating to her audience. And because of that rare quality, she received an unprecedented amount of support from fans everywhere.

“When I was let go, and I really my poured heart and soul into my listeners and how I felt about this radio family we were creating: to see loyalty come back to me, that got me through it. When you do what I do, [you] want to make a legitimate, organic, real bond. If you really are doing it right, listeners will be loyal too. That told me that I was doing it right. If I had been insincere at all, [I] wouldn’t have had that kind of response. People come and go in radio in all the time. Shows get let go. Stations change format. [It’s] nothing new. It isn’t always that someone gets that kind of support. [It’s a] good indication that people were picking up my relationships were real. [You’re] pouring your heart and soul on your end and they’re picking it up.

I think people really respond to anybody who’s not afraid to be themselves 100% and talk about everything. [Someone who] isn’t afraid to say this is me, this is who I am, this is what I believe in, to be passionate about it, to be a voice for the community and care about the things we all care about. I carry a soapbox with me and I’m not afraid to use it. A guy came up to me at an event I was doing [and said], ‘I spend every single morning yelling at my radio for you to shut up and I love your show and I listen to you every single day.’ Even though he disagreed with everything I say, he genuinely liked me. I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to stay true to the things I believe in yet still keep the person disagreeing with me from throwing up.”

And it was those relationships that motivated her to not give up on receiving another job in Detroit radio. I think I speak on behalf of all Allyson fans that we are so grateful she stayed in the D. But it was difficult for her to find that job because, just like it is in so many fields, who you know sometimes outweighs what you know.

“We were raised under the notion that if you work hard, hard work reaps the rewards. If we’re just being judged on our work, and whoever is doing the best work, if that’s how we’re getting by or falling behind, if we all follow that blueprint, it’s actually not even close. People advance in entertainment because of who they know and don’t work hard. There are people who are responsible for something that is a complete success and get overlooked. I would like to see [that] hard work speaks for itself. If [you’re] looking for someone to fill a role: who’s earned it? [Who] will take you to the next level? [Who] has worked hard? Hard work doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’ve seen people never get to have a taste of success. [Entertainment] doesn’t reward the best and the brightest…This is a business where you’re trying to win, and if someone has a record of winning, you would want to talk to them whether if they’re a man or a woman.”

Unfortunately, I have seen this as well. I remember bringing in a new project, something I had already been implementing but decided to use as the subject of a grant written by myself and a colleague. Even though I had done most of the leg work, I was slowly squeezed out of the project and was not given any credit when this colleague, along with another person who had been brought on the project in spite of my objections, decided to publish a paper. I fought with the journal to be made one of the authors; they conceded that I should have some credit but that I should be only listed in the acknowledgments section. And their idea of an acknowledgment was almost as insulting as no acknowledgment at all.

Because of what happened, I have toyed with the idea of not continuing in academia once I receive my Ph.D. My goal was always to be a professor and run my own lab; but after all the politics and lack of integrity I witnessed, I really doubted that I had the stomach to deal with all of it on a regular basis. However, if those things hadn’t happened to me, I would never have left. And if I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be at the University of Michigan pursuing a Ph.D. in a field I love. Maybe I’ll stay in academia; maybe I’ll go into industry. But after surviving that incident, among others, I realized how strong I am; that I have a voice; and that I’m not afraid to use it. And Allyson feels the same way about her life. In spite of all that has happened, she is still madly in love with radio.

“I love what I do. Maybe all careers and paths can be trying. [If you] make a career in entertainment, [you’re] picking an uphill path. You have to really want it. [It] separate[s] people who think it’s cool from people who are meant to do it. [You] spend a lot of time dependent on yourself. [I have] so much hope for the future in different avenues radio is going. I think it might be just what we need to rejuvenate. Things have bottlenecked but are opening up. [There are] ways to put yourself out there. Hopefully it will bring more people to the table. [It’s] harder to do when waiting for someone to give you the green light. [I’m] just so glad I’m still here in Detroit with my listeners. I’m a work in progress. ‘The best is yet to come.’ It’s still there; [I’m] still excited about what my future holds. [I’m] not giving up on all the things I could possibly dream. [You] should always have that attitude.”

She ends our interview by quoting Steve Harvey: “The only way for you to soar is you got to jump.”

Her saga of jumping, hitting the bottom, and soaring higher than ever is no stranger to history. Einstein, after graduating with a poor GPA from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic, worked as a lowly patent office clerk. However, it was during this time that he wrote four papers that changed his status…and revolutionized physics on an unparalleled scale. Dr. Maya Angelou didn’t speak for years after being raped; she blamed herself for her assailant’s death when she revealed his name and he was subsequently beaten to death. She became the author of the New York Times bestseller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and worked with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Martin Luther King suffered severe depression and twice attempted suicide; and he became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, the author of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I have a feeling that Allyson’s story will be joining their ranks.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

 

Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Irene Park: “From the Lab to the Public”

I am amazed by people who are experts in multiple areas. For instance, Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci was not just the famous painter of Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Vitruvian Man, although Mona Lisa alone was definitely enough to ensure his fame. He was also a scientist who worked on hydraulics and civil engineering projects and studied anatomy and botany, among many other subjects. Beatrix Potter, the beloved author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was heavily involved in and a leader for land conservation. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was a twelfth-century Jewish doctor and Torah scholar whose work has become part of the backbone of the tenets of Judaism. The saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” does not apply to these historical giants. Nor does it apply to University of Michigan graduate student Irene Park.Lab Pic

A proud Cornell alumna, just like yours truly, Irene obtained her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and philosophy before starting her Ph.D. in Genetics at Michigan, where she has published some of her work in the prestigious journal Genome Research and has discovered her passion for science writing. She has learned to manage her time to indulge her love of public communication as a writer for the university’s newspaper The Michigan Daily and as former editor-in-chief of MiSciWriters, a science blog run by Michigan grad students and postdocs. However, a devoted Ph.D. candidate, she spends most of her time on her dissertation topic: DNA.

She explains that her research involves understanding how errors are made in DNA replication and how to prevent them. She says, “DNA is copied every time a cell divides…and an adult body has over 30 trillion cells in his or her body,” and compares the possibility of a replication error to a game of Telephone: the more times the message is relayed, the more likely an error will occur. And an error in DNA replication can lead to cancer, autism spectrum disorder, and even be a factor in mental illnesses.

She is focusing on a specific consequence of DNA replication error called Copy Number Variants, which changes the number of copies of DNA. For example, Copy Number Variants can delete or duplicate at least one of the two copies of DNA obtained from the person’s parents. Sometimes the deletion is harmless; other times it can result in serious and even fatal diseases. Because of the work of geneticists like Irene, we are seeing major breakthroughs in the area of gene therapy that have led to treatments for sickle-cell anemia, cancer, and even hemophilia.

While this line of work is fascinating to scientists and non-scientists alike and is making great strides toward improved medical care, the daily grind of a graduate student trying to obtain results is not always as glamorous as the topic itself appears. Irene makes a very poignant statement, one that many prospective students need to hear:

“You’re in grad school to learn how to think and reason, not to make a huge, splashy discovery. Most of the thesis defenses I’ve been to did not describe groundbreaking work. This is not to say that their work was insignificant in any way, but the main focus should not be getting your paper into the top-tier journals. It should be learning to do good science. Otherwise, you might feel really unhappy when you realize that it took you years of work just to generate that one figure.”

As a former master’s and current Ph.D. student, I can attest to this in a resounding way! I spent three years working on determining an energy profile for an organic solar cell material. Since I’m a computationalist, one of my primary concerns is determining the right model; while this is the easiest part of the project, it is not an easy task. It took about a year and a half just to find the right model that described only 6 atoms of a 100-atom system. A few thousand calculations later, we finally had our profile along with some other explanatory graphs and figures. That was three years of work right there.

While I was working on my master’s, I felt as if I knew very little about my field, especially since I was only studying a small cog in a vast machine. I thought that my work was minuscule, something anyone could have accomplished and in a much faster time span. It wasn’t until after I’d finished and discussed with others what I had studied that I realized the brevity and impact of my results and just how much I had learned. But getting there seemed like an endless saga of setbacks. This is familiar to all grad students, including Irene; and not all setbacks are from faulty data.

Irene addresses a very common problem for graduate students: the work environment.

“There are not many clear expectations for the students…being a graduate student is different from being an employee. There are no job contracts or clear expectations on what you should do or are responsible for. And part of that is intentional since graduate school is all about developing independent thinkers, but I work best with deadlines and clear communication/feedback from people so I found the lack of expectations really frustrating at times.”

She cautions prospective graduate students to not only consider the type of research they want to conduct but also the type of environment in which they want to work. They should determine if they want very involved or very hands-off advisers, what they want to accomplish during their program, whether or not to have multiple advisers, and, if so, how to set clear boundaries so that everyone is satisfied with the outcome. And that is probably one of the most important lessons anyone, especially a graduate student, learns: setting boundaries.

Irene is, unfortunately, not the only person to experience bullying in academia. Even though she has had very supportive advisers and committee members and her conflicts have involved other faculty members in her department, she believes that bullying is becoming even more of a problem because it has gone unchecked for so long. And sadly, many instances of bullying involve the adviser’s abuse of power towards his or her graduate students. It’s true that graduate students exist at the pleasure of their advisers, who control everything: funds, materials, equipment, and the date of your graduation. And when one person holds that much power, the working relationship can rapidly fall apart.

Coming from a Korean family, Irene says that she was taught to put the needs of the group ahead of her own. So when it came to bullying, she was hesitant to speak up for herself, believing it could cause friction and make things more tense for others. However, she has learned the balance of picking battles: it is okay to defend yourself and to voice your concerns and ideas; however, remaining silent, as long as no one is being hurt, is not a sign of weakness.

Although Irene has had to endure many adversities throughout grad school, which included trying to decide whether or not to continue with her program, her science writing have provided her with joy and purpose. Her desire is to become a science writer and “to bring the science from the lab to the public,” something that is desperately needed in today’s anti-science climate. She further states, “Many academic projects, especially basic science research, are publicly funded, so it only makes sense for the public to know what researchers are doing with their money. I believe that type of transparency will raise the public’s trust in scientists, too.”

She believes that in order to convey her message, understanding her audience and finding common ground with them is essential.

“I think people sometimes dismiss the power of emotional empathy when it comes to persuasion and assume that laying out the facts is enough. Facts are important, but you have to come up with an angle or a message that really resonates with your audience — otherwise you sound like a broken record just citing facts over and over again. Knowing a diverse group of people helps me see and realize what others might think of current issues, especially for controversial ones.”

This is valuable advice for not only communicating science but also addressing biases. As an Asian-American woman in STEM, Irene says that she does not expect complete understanding regarding the issues women and Asian Americans face; but she does hope for a willingness to be aware and to be an advocate for change.

“You have to really SHOW that you’re open-minded, and you aren’t just saying it to relieve your guilt. Wearing the safety pin or saying something like ‘my door is always open’ or ‘my prayers are with you’ means nothing if I don’t feel like you will genuinely pay attention to what I have to say and implement (or at least try) the necessary changes to fix the problem. The mismatch between the actions and words/representations can quickly lead to mistrust.”

And she believes a call to action is in order to change the way women and girls are exposed to STEM. She says that labeling traits, such as emotions and interests, as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ is problematic, and that one of the biggest issues now is not just about accepting women into STEM but keeping them interested in it. Considering the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace, it is understandable why many women leave their careers. “…ignoring sexual harassment directed toward female academics (especially if the harasser is a big-name, famous researcher or faculty member) sends a very clear message about the work environment. Why would anyone want to work in an environment where they have no voice and where their safety is not guaranteed?”

With people like Irene Park at the helm, women will continue to find their voices and the courage to use them.

Be Kind

This piece is especially difficult for me to write. I am not ashamed of my illnesses, just like I think there is no shame in having asthma, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. But it isn’t information I volunteer unless I am speaking with people I feel are trustworthy. However, in the last week we have said goodbye to Kate Spade and Anthony Bordain, both of whom committed suicide, and I feel it is important for me to share my own story.

I have type II bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder. In fact, I most likely have OCD, but because I never disclosed my compulsions until after I had been placed on medication, I cannot be officially diagnosed with it unless I were to stop all meds and have my behavior monitored. Considering it took almost twenty years for me to start therapy and an additional four years to receive the correct diagnosis and combination of medications, that is something I’m not willing to do.

I was never abused as a kid. My parents disciplined us, but they never hit us. I was never raped or molested. I never witnessed or experienced anything traumatic until my grandmother died when I was nineteen. I grew up in a warm and generous family, attended parochial school, and never worried that I would have food to eat, clothes to wear, books to read, and a house to call home. If someone were to watch a movie of my life, they would probably call it idyllic; I had more than most people could ever hope for. But I was not happy.

I don’t understand how or when it all started. My parents told me I was a very happy baby and only fussed when I needed to eat, sleep, or have my diaper changed. I did, however, cry if other children around me were crying or throwing tantrums, which would cause me a great deal of anxiety. Even at a year old, I was hypersensitive. But other than that, I was very laid back and cheerful. I loved learning even then, and my mom had taught me how to read, write, and count by the time I was three, right around the time I started preschool. I was looking forward to being in school like all my brothers and learning more all the time.

And then the first day came.

I walked into a room full of toys, books, paper, crayons, scissors, and glue. Basically, any 1990s toddler’s dream come true. My mom stayed with me for part of the day but explained she would leave for a while and come back to get me later, which didn’t bother me in the least. But when one of the other kids had a meltdown after his mom left, I started to panic. After that, I hated school.

Everyday from preschool through fourth grade, I bawled my eyes out whenever my mom dropped me off at school. For the first year, instead of playing with the other kids at recess, I would sit on a bench and ask the teacher’s aide, “When is my mommy coming to get me?” In fact, my principal wanted to hold me back because I wasn’t sociable enough, an idea my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, nixed and assured my parents I would grow out of that in my own time. She was right; I did eventually grow out of it. And fortunately my parents listened to her or I would have been nine years old and still in preschool.

Along with the constant crying, I was painfully shy, and it didn’t help that I was one of the tallest kids in the class. Imagine that: not wanting anyone to look at you but being the most easily noticeable person in the room because you stand a whole head and shoulders taller than everyone else, including the teacher! But when I turned eight, it only became worse because that’s when the compulsions hit.

My parents explained sex to me when I was four; I didn’t know all the details, but I knew what was supposed to go where in order to make a baby. And yet when I was in third grade, I became obsessed with the notion that if I accidentally touched someone (or even if my DESK touched someone) that I was having sex with them. It sounds ridiculous, right? Even I thought it was ridiculous, especially since I knew you couldn’t “accidentally” have sex with someone. But even though I logically knew that what I was doing was irrational, I couldn’t help it. The compulsions would last a few months but they never completely went away; they just changed form.

Eventually, I grew out of that and became obsessed with cheating: what if, as I was walking by someone’s desk and I saw their papers, I was cheating? My solution to this: always look down. You can imagine how well that worked. Then I moved on to being obsessed with going to hell, believing that every little thing I did would damn me forever. This resulted in my constantly praying to God for forgiveness. Also, we were warned around this same time by teachers and pastors about sex sin and not to lust after anyone. So once again, I resorted to not looking at anyone.

Can you imagine sitting at a restaurant table and seeing someone like me pass by? Someone who can’t look anyone in the eye and mutters to herself, who jerks her head away if someone walks near her? What would you think?

I knew I looked weird. My actions didn’t make any sense, but I still couldn’t help what I was doing. And it just kept getting worse. I was afraid of driving because I didn’t want to accidentally hit someone and not notice it, which would result in my being charged with a hit-and-run and the complete ruin of my life. Again, I don’t know how you can “accidentally” hit another car or pedestrian and not notice, but it worried me.

If I thought I’d hit something (which was because I’d run over a pothole, very common occurrences in metro Detroit), I would circle around the block to see if a car had pulled over or if a cop had been called. I would plan my route so that I could minimize the number of times I had to change lanes because what if as I was looking over my shoulder I veered too far to the side or someone darted out in front of me? It took me twice as long as other people just to go down the street to get a Slurpee.

But perhaps my biggest obsession of all, one that started around the time I entered school and has stayed with me ever since: perfection.

I had always been a serious student and would panic over every exam and quiz, even in early elementary school. I was probably the only seven-year-old who cried over a 90% on a spelling test. Perfection was always a big deal for me, and I felt that if I wasn’t perfect, then I must be a failure. This continued through college and graduate school, with regular anxiety attacks. I remember one semester I was consistently running on only three to five hours of sleep a night and was either attending lectures or office hours, studying, or doing homework.

I could barely sleep because my mind was always racing about the course material and all the questions I had. I kept a notebook with me wherever I went so I could write down all the questions I had, most of which I already knew the answers but still wrote down “just in case.” I even took that notebook in the bathroom while I showered. I was so tense all the time that I became a hazard in my chemistry lab.

Labs are nerve wracking for most people, and rightfully so. They are not safe places, and all precautions need to be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. For me, though, taking every precaution meant not doing anything, including drying a test tube, unless the TA approved it. I was so anxious that my hands would shake, which caused me to squirt concentrated sodium hydroxide or hydrochloric acid everywhere EXCEPT into my freaking graduated cylinder!

My anxiety wreaked havoc on me, but as I got older, I faced a new demon: depression.

Many times as a kid, I thought that if my life were to continue as a series of compulsions with extreme anxiety, then life wasn’t worth living. But the first time I ever contemplated suicide seriously was probably around fifteen, which is when I first self-harmed. I took a razor to my leg and hacked away until I had deep bloody cuts all along the length of my shin. When my parents found out, they wanted to take me to a therapist, which I stupidly begged them not to do. I thought that by having to go to therapy I was some psycho freak. I promised I wouldn’t do it again, and I kept my word for the rest of the time I lived under their roof. But self harming became a bigger issue about ten years later.

The first time I ever felt despair so deep I thought I would never get out of it was when my grandmother died. I had lost one of my best friends and then lost one more when her sister, our second grandma, died four months later. I alternated between despair and uncontrollable rage, which was the bipolar rearing its ugly head. I don’t know that I ever fully recovered from their deaths, but I was told that it was probably what triggered the bipolar to make its appearance. While I was only nineteen when it happened, which is a bit young to start displaying signs of bipolar disorder, my doctor told me that it would have come out no matter what; their deaths just triggered it to come early.

This started a vicious cycle of anxiety, depression, rage, and random bursts of energy. As I was doing research, my compulsions came back in the form of checking my data over and over again out of fear of possibly publishing incorrect results. Any scientist worth her or his salt will rigorously check the accuracy of their data, but what I was doing was obsessing, not validating. I would have my data in one table and the experimentalist’s in another right next to each other and would go line by line to see if they matched…at least three times. I could see they matched but worried I had missed something or maybe that because I wanted them to match that my mind was playing tricks on me. I had to check three times and if I was distracted or thought I overlooked something, I had to start again.

Needless to say, I wasn’t making much progress.

The stress of graduate school and my illnesses, which at that point I still thought I would “get over,” became too much for me.

In August of 2012, I tried to commit suicide.

Imagine waking up to policemen standing over you in your apartment, waiting for you to make a coherent thought because you have more pills in you than a pharmacy and are higher than a kite. Then imagine having to drink charcoal to counteract all the drugs in your system.

Have you ever had to drink charcoal?! I thought I was going to vomit all over the sidewalk from drinking what tasted like Satan’s piss.

While there hadn’t been any internal damage, I was still a huge risk and was admitted to the mental health unit. Keep in mind that I was in Ithaca at this time; the hospital was small and didn’t really have an official psychiatric ward. There were no strip searches or locked cells or white scrubs in which we had to shuffle around. Yeah, they checked my belongings to make sure I didn’t have any sharp objects or shampoo with an alcohol ingredient. They had bed checks every thirty minutes while we slept. The doors to the unit were locked and we weren’t allowed outside without a chaperone and only if the attending psychiatrist approved it. We could only have visitors for an hour at a time, two hours a day. And yet that was the most relaxed I’d felt in a long time.

Most of the other patients were drug and alcohol addicts waiting to go to a rehab facility and some were like me: people with anxiety and depression trying to find the right medication. We could read books, listen to music, play ping pong, and watch movies. We attended group and individual therapy sessions that taught us coping mechanisms and how to give voice but not control to our fears. But mostly we just talked to each other and listened to each other’s stories.

There was no pressure to perform or to be the best; we all were there because we needed help. There was no judgment but there was a mutual understanding and a sense of camaraderie in our fight against our respective demons. Oddly enough, for the first time, I felt like a normal person.

Here we were, some of society’s misfits, all banding together to support each other through our difficulties and our adjustments to treatment. We had all hit rock bottom and looked death in the eye but had survived. We gave each other hope to keep going and make better lives for ourselves. We tried to make ourselves and each other see that we had a purpose in this sometimes tragic but still wonderful saga we call life.

I left after a week and was able to take off a semester to recover. And while I am so happy that I was unsuccessful in my suicide attempt, I hesitate to think what would have happened if the few people in whom I had confided hadn’t kept a close eye on me and called the campus police to check on me.

I suffered in silence for so long; in fact, even after I left the hospital, my road to recovery was anything but easy. I struggled with the medication I was taking, so much so that I decided to leave Cornell with a master’s degree instead of pursuing my doctorate. Because I was only able to find part-time work after I graduated, I didn’t have health insurance for four months, which meant I couldn’t go to therapy or be on medication. I resumed self-harming, which is still a problem even now although it has been less severe due to the medications. It wasn’t until four years after my suicide attempt when I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive situation that someone mentioned to me that I might be bipolar, something which was later confirmed by my therapist and psychiatrist.

As it turns out depression (called “major depressive disorder”) and bipolar disorder (formerly known as “manic depressive disorder”) are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other. For bipolar, there are two types; type I is characterized by depressive cycles with hypermanic episodes. This hypermania involves feelings of grandiosity, excessive indulgences, and/or the lack of the need for sleep for days on end, among many other symptoms. Some people who are type I bipolar may experience psychotic episodes.

Not to be snide, but I always found it funny when I was asked during psychiatric evaluations if I experienced hallucinations. How on earth would people know if they’re hallucinating if they already have trouble distinguishing the real from the imaginary? Fortunately, I am around enough people on a regular basis that if I were to start hallucinating, someone would catch it very quickly.

I am classified as type II bipolar, which means I have extensive depressive episodes with “hypomanic” episodes interspersed throughout. Hypomania is not as “intense” (for lack of a better word) as hypermania but still involves sudden energetic bursts that can result in rash decisions and lack of sleep, among other problems. In fact, my waves of obsessions and compulsions most likely occurred during manic episodes, which eventually die down and later return in another form.

Over the last twenty-four years, very few people have understood what I’ve experienced. They didn’t know why I couldn’t just make up my mind to be happy, why I couldn’t exercise “mind over matter.” I didn’t understand it either for a long time, until it was finally explained to me that these disorders are physical illnesses brought on by faulty neurotransmitters. How can I convince my mind to overcome my circumstances when it has been damaged by a neurological defect?

Why have I disclosed all this information to you? Because this is not something openly discussed. Most people know the signs and symptoms of heart disease, pneumonia, and the flu, all of which are common occurrences. But not many people understand or recognize the onset of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses, many of which affect millions.

There is still a stigma associated with mental illness, one that is preventing people from getting the help they desperately need to live fully-functional lives. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses. While they are not fully understood even in the medical community, they are real and the people who suffer them need compassion. They need to be heard and to feel as if they matter. Because they do.

Please, educate yourself on these illnesses; donate to research; lobby for more government funding; volunteer; be trained to work a suicide help line. Call the loved ones you know who suffer from these and assure them that no matter what, you will be there to help them. Don’t preach at them; don’t quote Bible verses at them; don’t tell them it’s a spiritual problem; don’t tell them how to feel. Just be kind. Be compassionate. Be understanding.

Be there.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Landing Among the Stars

One of the key things you learn in mathematics is the difference between a variable and a constant. We can deduce what these mean just from using the English language: a variable is something that changes and a constant is something that doesn’t. For instance, if you have a function that depends on x, we can define x as the variable. Its value can change, which means that the output of the function changes as well. However, numbers like 1, 2, 50, 72905, etc. are constants; their values will NEVER change.

Functions can be a tricky concept to master when they are first introduced. The idea that you have two letters (f for function and x for its input) that are actually numbers, which can change depending on the value of x, is not intuitive. Constants are easier to grasp: no matter what, they stay the same.

Amazing how mathematics so accurately describes human nature.

I have a difficult time with change. On my last day of undergrad, I cried all the way to my car. I was getting ready to leave for Cornell to start grad school, something I had been anticipating for months. I was going to further build my credentials as an engineer and make strides toward my goals. Plus, I had lived at home during college and would finally have a place of my own. I finally felt like I was spreading my wings.

But I was leaving the comfort of familiarity. I had made friends at college, many of whom were staying in the area for jobs. Most of my family lived in adjoining suburbs; there was always someone I could visit if I needed to see a friendly face. The people who had mentored me were at my school, and I had grown accustomed to that place as if it were a second home. Leaving that for the unknown seemed ludicrous.

I’ve never been a very social person. How was I going to make friends all over again? Trying to make friends in college had been hard enough. What if I had no one to talk to? What if I was still going to be the same awkward pain in the neck I’d been in college? What if I always felt lonely? What if my friends at home forgot about me?

What if I failed?

That was definitely my greatest fear. If I stayed home, I couldn’t fail because I hadn’t tried. That sounds logical, right? But J. K. Rowling said it best: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.”

We all have dreams and desires. Even as I approach thirty, I love to daydream about what I’m going to continue doing with my life. Sometimes, my goals seem too lofty and I tell myself that it will never happen; I should just comfort myself with daydreams, not aspire to them. And then I realize that what I thought was common sense telling me to play it “smart” was really fear telling me to play it “safe.”

I have dreams of being a respected quantum chemist and engineer, a published author, a teacher, a mentor, and an advocate for women and minorities in STEM. I want to be the type of leader in whom people can confide, who will listen and encourage employees and colleagues so that they can obtain confidence and achieve their potential. I want to make an impact in all of these fields so that whoever enters them will have the greatest experiences of their lives. I want to see people embracing challenges with confidence, not running away from them out of fear of failure. But in order for me to help implement this change, I myself need to change.

I need to conquer my own fears.

This world desperately needs change, and, more importantly, it needs people willing to be vessels for change. That has never been an easy task. One of my favorite quotes by M. Mead is this: “Upon the gifted among the misfits lies the burden of building new worlds.” It’s so true that people whom others deemed as misfits and oddities were the ones brave enough to take risks and revolutionize their respective fields.

Marie Curie was a woman, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was practically considered a handicap when it came to being a scientist; she made advancements in radioactivity, which led to her first Nobel Prize in physics, and discovered the elements radium and polonium, for which she received her second Nobel in chemistry. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a famous mathematician who attended Trinity College at Cambridge and became a Fellow of the Royal Society while he was working for G. H. Hardy; given the many contributions he made to the field, no one would have guessed his poor background and lack of formal education beyond high school in India. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born during the Depression in Georgia, a part of the Jim Crow South, and suffered from depression and twice attempted suicide. He became the face of the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s easy to look at these heroes and think to ourselves, “Yes, but they were strong; they knew how to persevere. I’m not like that. I can’t adapt to change that well.” History doesn’t always tell us how people felt; most likely, each of them didn’t feel capable of performing the task at hand either. But they did figure out a way to overcome their doubts and become leaders for change, regardless of their gender, race, and even their age.

Leaders come from all backgrounds, and age is no exception. Curie had earned two degrees by the time she was seventeen, at which point she began working with future husband Pierre Curie. Ramanjuan was twenty-six when he first traveled to England and made a myriad of discoveries before his death at thirty-two. (As a side note, Newton was formulating calculus at twenty-three, Einstein had discovered relativity by twenty-six, and Queen Victoria became the Sovereign of the British Empire at eighteen.)

Social change has also been a young person’s cause. Thomas Jefferson was only thirty-two when he penned the Declaration of Independence. William Wilberforce became a British politician at twenty-one and took up the cause of abolition at twenty-eight. His friend, William Pitt the Younger, became the British Prime Minister at twenty-four. Barbara Johns was only sixteen when she led a strike against the racially-segregated Moton High School in Virginia. And in today’s times, we have Emma Gonzalez, an eighteen-year-old survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and one of the organizers for “March for Our Lives” for gun control. (When I was a high-school senior, I spent the year applying for scholarships and planning the party I’d have before starting college. Emma spent hers being an advocate for school safety and gun law reform.)

We need our young people, the world’s future leaders, to be involved in change. They should be taught early not to fear it or the setbacks that come with it. They should be encouraged to take chances and learn not only from classrooms but also from experience. Maybe then we will have people who are less interested in playing it safe and more interested in playing it smart.

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Les Brown

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

The Science of Deduction

I have recently become a huge fan of the BBC TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. What could be better than the classics of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a 21st-century twist? A man with an odd and yet endearing sense of humor who notices seemingly concealed details to solve impossible crimes with his more grounded sidekick – that is definitely my choice of distraction from working on the literature search I need to be doing on the quantum dynamics of photosynthetic reaction centers. (Or should I write “centres”?)

In the series, Sherlock maintains his own website called “The Science of Deduction” where he explains his method of analysis of various minutiae that have helped him deduce the important aspects of others’ life stories. I can imagine that would be a bit freaky in real life: someone who could read you like a book every time he or she saw you. And yet attention to detail does not seem to have a high value associated with it anymore.

In the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” Sherlock and John are on their way to a crime scene when John makes the comment: “The police don’t consult amateurs.” Sherlock then launches into an explanation of how he knew about John’s military service, his education, his family relationships, and his sister’s drinking problem. All of this had been deduced within a few minutes of their initial meeting. And who can forget Sherlock’s drop-the-mic response: “You were right. The police don’t consult amateurs.”

Today, we have information literally at our fingertips, which lately has been serving as a double-edged sword. Sir Francis Bacon was right; knowledge is power. But we still need to know how to wield this power in order to use it effectively. Being well-informed is essential, but, depending on the source of information and how much of it you fully comprehend, it does not make you an expert and certainly does not put you in the position to educate others.

In the age of blogs (which I LOVE), everyone can write about what she or he finds interesting. And it is an amazing outlet! I love to write, and having a medium for discussing what I love has put many of my values into perspective for me.

HOWEVER….

We need to be careful about what we read and how we allow it to affect our decision making. A paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society is a valid source of information. A blog run by a certified M.D. is a good place to start gaining some medical information; however, the author doesn’t know you or your medical history, and, therefore, whatever post she or he publishes may not be a valid treatment option for you. A blog run by a parent with little to no medical experience is a TERRIBLE place to go for information on whether or not to vaccinate your child.

Keep in mind: this is a blog. Even though I am a scientist with valid credentials, this website is not a source of information that would hold up under crossfire. This website is dedicated to my musings and my opinions. Yes, I present facts about science and famous scientists; but this is my outlet for my viewpoints and how I see the world around me.

I’m an expert on things like organic solar cell materials. I am training to become an expert in quantum dynamics and thermodynamics. I can answer questions about physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer programming. If I don’t know an answer to something, I can find the answer because that is part of my training – to find the facts from valid sources of information and analyze them. Even though I’m not an expert in things like medicine and cancer research, I can make some statements about those fields with certainty because I know experts in those fields.

Becoming an expert in something is an arduous process. A new scientist or engineer just completing a bachelor’s degree definitely has significantly more knowledge than the average lay person on mathematics and science. After a few years in industry, their expertise has been built, and after five to ten years, it has increased exponentially to the point where they can call themselves experts.

People with advanced degrees like a thesis-based master’s, a Ph.D., an M.D., or a J.D. are experts in their fields. Usually, when these people graduate with their degrees, they are already experts (you have to be in order to graduate); however, a fresh physics Ph.D. graduate is not as big of an expert as the physics professor who’s been doing research for 20+ years. The new doctor has a long road to walk in order to have the expertise of the cardiologist with a ten-year-old practice. However, even though there is still much for them to learn, they are still reliable sources of information. And here’s why.

Graduate school is an experience like no other. Just getting in is a laborious process. Your GPA, standardized test scores, past research experiences, research interests, volunteer experiences, and leadership positions are scrutinized in great detail. And once you arrive, it can feel like going to hell and back multiple times, each time shaking the hand of the devil himself. Which is kind of the point. We are required to go through a gauntlet of course work that is designed to stretch our mental capacities as far as possible. In order to graduate, we have to conduct research that no one else has done before and may not even work (in which case we have to go back to the drawing board).

We have to apply for fellowships, submit papers to journals, and present at conferences, all of which go through thorough, and sometimes vicious, reviews. Academia is a highly competitive environment, and if your goal is to become a professor, then you have to be at the absolute top of your field. And that is a feat only few can accomplish. In research, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. What matters is how well your data holds up during trials and reviews. If it doesn’t, then you start over.

Now I have never attended medical school, but from what many of my friends who are doctors have said, the process is similar: trying to survive in an ultra-competitive environment where you have to absorb as much information as possible in a limited time frame to test if you have the guts and stamina to finish. On top of that, when they finish, they have to go through a residency at a hospital, which can last around three years. If they choose to specialize, then they have to complete further residencies (which can last around five years) and become board-certified. They are still taking exams, and, even when they are licensed to practice medicine on their own, they still have to study to keep up with current drugs, therapies, and technologies.

Do experts make mistakes? Of course. Can they be costly? Yes. Can they be fixed? Definitely.

I once went out for coffee with a guy who knew I was an engineer and then went on to criticize engineers for not knowing as much as the technicians working on the line. Apparently, the engineer had designed something that the technicians knew wouldn’t work….and it didn’t.

I’m not saying the technicians aren’t valuable. Any engineer worth her or his salt, especially a newbie, will consult with them because they are the ones on the line actually implementing the new parts, technologies, and procedures. However, the engineer is trained to see beyond what happens on the line. They are responsible for designing something that fits into a multitude of constraints: cost, time, safety, and available resources.

Maybe that was the best design the engineer could create given the information available at the time. Plus, the heart and soul of engineering is an initial design subjected to testing; a new design subjected to the same testing; and a repeat of the process as necessary until a final design that meets all the requirements is created. These are things for which technicians are not responsible. With the constant barrage of failing and trying again, that engineer gains a deeper intuition, one that will serve her or him well on the next project.

Needless to say, I never went out with that guy again.

Lately, there has been a deep mistrust of science and medicine. Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers are working hard to discredit what scientists and doctors say. And I have to ask, “Where are they getting their information? What training have they undergone in these areas of study? What valid tests have they done to support their claims?”

I am not saying to follow an expert’s advice blindly. I think it’s important to be educated and form your own opinion. But as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Doctors and scientists are not omniscient; but considering the credentials they have to obtain and all the work they do and the sacrifices they make, I think it’s safe to believe that what they say will be accurate. They are trained to pay attention to detail, to use deduction on a regular basis. Consult the experts. Don’t consult the amateurs.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

This Is for My Daughter

Relax. I don’t have a baby; I’m not even pregnant. But I do hope to have a daughter some day. It might seem silly, but sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to have one. I’d buy her Legos and Barbies; pink, frilly dresses and superhero t-shirts. We’d watch princess movies and Star Wars; and I’d teach her how to bake and to use a miter saw.

I would tell her that as long as she tries to do right by herself and others, she will always be beautiful; that respect is based on character, not appearance; and that as long as she tries her best at whatever she sets her mind to, she should be proud of what she accomplishes. I would want her to understand that failure is a part of life and that it’s okay to make mistakes and take risks.

I would want her to know that she should always speak up for herself and for others; that she should never be afraid to ask questions or speak her mind; and that she is unique and amazing. There’s never been anyone like her and there never will be, and she should always strive to be the best version of herself.

But then I look around at what’s happening in our society. Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE the Women’s March and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and everything they are accomplishing. But it devastates me that these are necessary. Why has it been so ingrained in our society that women are liars and/or attention seekers? Why are laws made about women’s bodies and those same bodies are constantly being objectified in advertisements? Why do so many people get away with sexual assault and harassment because it can’t always be proven? Why has birth control been the subject of intense scrutiny as far as passing laws regulating if companies should provide it, but there’s no hype around the access to erectile dysfunction medications?

Because of the Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, I believe things will start to get better. But will these problems ever really go away? One of my biggest fears is that they won’t, and my daughter (should I have one) will face the same issues that I and my female friends and colleagues have had to face.

Will she be catcalled in the street like I was at 15 when some guy yelled out the window, “Show us your boobs!” and at 23 when another guy yelled, “I like your shirt, and someday I’ll take it off!” Will people obsess over her looks like they did with me and then told me after I gained weight from medication that I “used to be gorgeous” and I’ll have to lower my standards when it comes to dating? Will she face the same verbal, emotional, and mental abuse I faced at a past job? Will someone try to steal her work like someone tried to do to me?

I worry about the future of women and girls. While it’s true that we have made progress over the last hundred years, it breaks my heart that everything we’ve been fighting for is basic rights: the right to vote, to be paid the same amount as a man for the same job, to serve our country, to have access to necessary medical care, to be in control of our own bodies and finances, to have the same opportunities, recognition, and benefits as men. To not be seen as weak, overly-emotional, illogical second-class citizens incapable of the same mental capacity, drive, and ambition as a man.

Growing up, I also had a negative view of feminism because in the religious environment in which I grew up it was seen as one of the evils that tore apart the moral fabric of society. Women, especially when they had children, were supposed to spend their time fully devoted to taking care of their homes, husbands, and kids. I also had a negative view of my own sex, that we were just a bag of emotions and couldn’t be trusted to make important and logical decisions. I also thought that women in leadership roles, especially the ones that served in the military, were just “trying to be like men.” I also placed blame on rape and harassment victims and bought into the idea that women should be modest to “protect” men and boys.

I was talking to a friend of the family during that time who had grown up in the 60s and 70s; she was telling me that when she was in school boys used to snap the girls’ bra straps. She followed up that story with, “Back then we didn’t make a big deal out of those things.”

Right. Because we shouldn’t be “attention seekers” or “stir up trouble” (instead of blaming the boys for being the cause of the trouble).

I remember a religious youth leader telling a group of girls (myself included) that “Girls give sex to get love; boys give love to get sex.”

During my teenage years, I slowly started seeing these things for what they were: a misogynistic power struggle. And as I grew older and became more ambitious (not to mention more vocal) and started breaking some of these stereotypes, the attitudes of the people around me also started to change.

People love to criticize the feminist movement, and many don’t seem to understand what its purpose is. I heard someone ask, “If they’re all about equality, why is it called the feminist movement and not the egalitarianist movement?”

Because if we are looking at the issues related to gender (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. considered separately for the sake of argument), men don’t usually need an advocate.

Before you start screaming at your computer, let me make a few things perfectly clear:

  1. I love dudes. They are awesome, and many of them are so supportive of the current movements.
  2. Many men are sexually assaulted and harassed and that is not to be belittled. I can’t say this for certain because I’m not a man who’s experienced that, but I would imagine it is just as difficult for him to come forward as it is for a woman because society has negative stereotypes about men as well.
  3. Following up on those stereotypes, men are not as encouraged as women to be in touch with their emotions. I don’t think anyone should be controlled by their emotions, but just like we are physical and intellectual and sexual beings (and I personally believe we are spiritual beings), we are also emotional beings. I think to deny any of those is unhealthy.

But men’s careers, healthcare, and compensations are not under threat. I do believe though that because feminism’s main goal is to improve the lives and images of women, men will indirectly benefit from this.

Why?

Because many women find it atrocious that men are criticized for being sensitive. As angry as we are that we are held accountable for men’s sexuality and are taught to be embarrassed of our own, we also think it’s unfair that this attitude paints a picture of men as wild animals who can’t control themselves. We hate the saying, “Boys will be boys,” not only because it excuses boys’ bad behavior while girls are held to higher standards, but also it gives the impression that boys aren’t capable of accountability and responsibility.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up in an environment that enforces gender stereotypes by the time they’re in elementary school or to live her life believing that sexual assault and harassment are just part of the norm. I don’t want anyone to be able to get away with taking away a piece of her dignity. I want her to believe that being a girl is awesome and empowering, not that it’s a liability.

If I should ever be so lucky to have a daughter, I hope the road for her is easier and that she’ll never be held back from realizing her dreams.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

The Student Became the Teacher…And Is Now a Student Again

I loved teaching. I’ve had many different roles over the past eleven years: undergraduate student, master’s student, research assistant. But my favorite was teacher.

My first job was more than eleven years ago; in fact, it was when I was thirteen. I used to ride horses and my parents decided to lease a beautiful thoroughbred for me, but part of the deal was I had to work at the stables in exchange for a lower lease rate. Honestly, I was more than thrilled, even though the work was far from glamorous. Have you ever taken care of sixty horses?! Just one horse to look after is a big job, especially considering the messes they make.

Tip: If you ever take care of a horse, one of the things you have to do is clean out their hooves with a pick. To do that, you have to squat down in a somewhat compromising position because if that horse decides to go to the bathroom (regardless of what it’s coming out of), it’ll get all over you if you don’t jump out of the way in time. If the horse starts to urinate, it’ll lean forward; jump FAR back. Horses have the water pressure of a fire hose and it will ricochet off the cement floor. If the horse has to do anything else, it will lift its tail. And if you’re cleaning the back hooves, you definitely need to keep an eye out for that.

My work included feeding and watering every horse, cleaning their buckets, sweeping the aisles, cleaning the tack and observation rooms, and overseeing students tacking up and cleaning their horses for lessons. It was grueling work, especially at thirteen, but I loved being around the horses. They were so beautiful to watch; it was almost like seeing a painting come to life. And I was lucky enough to spend my time with them and to learn how to ride competitively.

The point is that we all have to take jobs that aren’t the best paid or the most rewarding. In fact, after I finished my master’s degree, the job market was horrible; the only people hiring in industry were looking for engineers with at least 7-10 years of experience. I could only get a part-time teaching job, which meant I was getting paid less than what I was receiving as a graduate student; but it was even worse: I had no health insurance, something I desperately needed considering all the medical problems I was having. So I decided to do what I had always done before: I made myself invaluable.

Even though the job was part-time, I put in more than 40 hours a week. It was grueling and frustrating. I had just finished seven years of bachelor’s and master’s studies. I had been paying my dues and employing the whole “sweat now or bleed later” mentality. At that point in my life, I thought I would be reaping the rewards of my labor, not working even harder for lower pay. Then I received an offer to teach at the Naval Academy…and another offer to work at IBM. When my boss found out I might be leaving, he started working double time on creating a permanent position for me.

Within a few months of my graduating and taking the part-time job, I was a full-time lecturer with all the bells and whistles, something not normally heard of for someone my age (and without a Ph.D. to boot). But in spite of my newfound success, I still made myself invaluable. Eventually, I became the lead instructor for most of the courses in my department; developed the curriculum for said department; ran a program for at-risk students; taught, managed, and mentored over 200 students each term with a 20-person instructional staff; held a grant for a new pedagogy I implemented; and was second-in-command to my supervisor, a Ph.D.-holding, fully-tenured professor.

And now, I’m a student again. I’m back in the grad school game. To many, it might seem like a step backwards, and in a way, it is. When most people change jobs, it’s either a lateral or upward move; it doesn’t usually come with a demotion. But sometimes, taking a step back is a good thing. No, I don’t get to do the same things I used to. And as much as I loved my job and miss it, I’m really happy with where I am. At my old job, I was focusing on education, an area about which I am still passionate and in which I want to further develop my abilities. But I also felt like I was missing out on science. I was teaching it, but I didn’t feel as if I were a part of it.

Now, I get to focus on research and my own education. And I can develop more skills that will lead to many more opportunities.

One thing I try to keep in perspective is my mother’s Greek family. In the early twentieth century (and even into the 60s), Greeks were considered an undesirable group (just like the Italians and the Irish and, unfortunately, so many others). They had darker skin; their accents were strange; their native language was even more strange. They were loud and boisterous and very expressive, which ran against the grain of a typical socially-acceptable American family. My grandfather didn’t speak English until he started school; he didn’t finish high school and decided to join the Navy. He married young and started having a family right away; by the time he was my age, he had three children. Both he and my grandmother worked to make ends meet; in fact, many times he had to work three jobs. Eventually, though, he worked his way up and became a plant manager, one of the most respected in the company.

That’s how my mother was, too, when she was younger. She worked two jobs until she landed her dream career, and even then, she worked constantly. Both she and my grandfather believe that hard work is a blessing and that no honest work is beneath you when you need to take care of your family. That survivor mentality they carried over from their ancestors who immigrated here is what shaped us.

Sometimes you won’t be in the position you want. And it’s a horrible feeling to know that you’ve worked so hard for so long only to feel as if you’re not making any progress. But that’s where our minds can play tricks on us. By facing whatever challenges us and continuing to work as hard as we have been, eventually someone will take notice of how valuable we are. And anyone who applies her- or himself whole-heartedly to an honest job regardless of the circumstances is valuable indeed.

“The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.'” – Anonymous

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak