Traveling in grad school
At our January BYO Lunch, we bested a gloomy Monday by talking optimistically about vacations past and future. OCDS members ranging from 2nd-5th year students agreed that justifying personal time, let alone vacations, to your boss, your colleagues, and yourself can be difficult in grad school. Furthermore, our limited finances can present a serious challenge to traveling in grad school, so we discussed places and tips for making our money go the furthest.
The constant pressure to get *more* work done and the often imprecise guidelines around time off can really eek into your thoughts as you try to plan trips. OCDS members shared these concerns as well as the following rationale that members use to remind ourselves that time off is something we each deserve.
Vacations and time off help relax and refresh your brain, so when you get back to work you can be productive. Constant work without breaks may leave you frustrated, resentful, and even depressed about your life and your position in graduate school.
Everyone agreed that their work, boss, and finances would tolerate at least one *long* vacation (7-15 days including weekend days) every year. Some members expressed that they found taking two or more shorter vacations spread out over the year worked better for them, their work, and their boss.
For those working 6 day weeks, it may be possible to work out with your boss, explicitly or otherwise, that you work more hours during the week in exchange for some full weekends off. This could allow you short weekend trips. If your weekly days in are non-negotiable, however, you will just need to focus on the *long* vacations you can take.
Between the seven of us, we have visited or have plans to visit 9 different countries during grad school: France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Thailand. Some of the tips we shared are not secret, but good reminders.
If you’re flexible and especially if you can travel in “off season”, there are last minute deals and companies that will even compile them for you (scottscheapflights was the favorite here). For specific trips, try to book planes in advance (>3 months), but booking too early means that more budget airlines may not have released their flights yet (>6 months). Reach out to others to decide what parts of your trip are worth splurging for, and then book lodgings and local travel around those activities.
Also, don’t scoff at more local trips for short and long vacations. Be that the outdoors, for us at UCLA, we have the whole SoCal coast along with many great national and state parks within driving distance. Camping, either at real sites or on BLM land, can save you a good deal, and buying a national parks pass for the year can beat paying individual NP fees. Aside from gear, hiking and exploring our parks is a fairly low-budget way to vacation. Alternatively, visit nearby havens like San Diego, Temecula, Catalina, Santa Barbara, and OC cities for a less rustic break from grad school.
Whatever you do, take some time to enjoy yourself, your company, the views, and the food before plunging yourself back into the pb&j grind and cranking out your thesis.
In 2014, I stumbled upon a TV screen in Young Hall. It was advertising activities and accomplishments of the chemistry and biochemistry department. A picture with the words “The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry” caught my eye. It was an organization run by chemistry graduate students interested in outreach to underrepresented community college students. As a former community college student, I was interested in joining.
There was just one test–was I chemistry enough for The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry? Sure, I research atmospheric chemistry…but I’m not chemistry graduate student! Did I have the chemical chops for the group? I had to find out. I emailed the group’s faculty advisor, Miguel Garcia-Garibay and he passed me on to the leadership of the group. I set up a meeting to sit down and talk to the two co-presidents: Steven Lopez and Crystal Valdez. When we met, they informed me that they were changing their name to “The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science” or OCDS. This was done with hopes of recruiting graduate students outside of chemistry. The timing was perfect! I didn’t have to prove how much of a chemist I think I am! I’ve been a member of OCDS ever since and it’s had tremendous impact on me.
Just a few years later, Steven would become an assistant professor of chemistry at Northeastern University, Crystal is the Director of Computational Biology at Encompass Biosciences and I’m a co-president of OCDS. Time flies. OCDS has played a huge role in my development as a scientist, educator and advocate for diversity. I was curious if it played a similar role for the former co-presidents. In this spirit, I thought it would be great to get in touch with former members and talk with them about their experiences in OCDS.
Earlier this month, I sat down for a phone call with Professor Steven Lopez and talked at length about OCDS, diversity and his current career path. There were lots of laughs and insight. The following are excerpts of our conversation.
David: What is your personal and academic background?
Steven: My family is Cuban and I grew up in south Florida. I went to NYU for undergrad where I majored in chemistry and worked in Prof. Jim Canary’s research group. At the time, I was in a wet lab and synthesized organic ligands that would selectively complex heavy metals in solution. During this time, I realized I wasn’t a great experimentalist. *laughs*
Although at the time I did some circular dichroism measurements and found molecular orbitals and their transitions to be very interesting. Organic molecules absorbing photons fascinated me and really brought about my interest in more of the physical side of organic chemistry. I also began to realize that computation wasn’t just plotting data points in excel. Around this time, I got interested in Ken Houk’s work and would later be a graduate student in his lab.
After graduate school, I did a 2-year postdoc at Harvard as DOE fellow with Prof. Aspuru-Guzik.
Here I learned about machine learning, big data approach to electronic properties of molecules with the goal of sustainable energy applications.
David: What kind of research does your group do?
Steven: The fundamental work of our group comes down to computational organic photochemistry with three main applications.
First, we are interested in developing new materials for harnessing solar energy. In other words, we look at organic materials that can essentially act like metals, absorb light and convert this energy to electricity.
Low-cost organic materials can use renewable solar energy and bring down the cost of energy. Current organic photovoltaics, can charge phones or small electronics…This isn’t going to power a building but it’s a start.
Second, we are investigating new drugs for “photodynamic therapy”. Photodynamic therapy is a minimally invasive technique for treating cancer anywhere a flashlight can reach without needing chemotherapy.
The idea is that a drug (organic dye) capable of absorbing visible-light is injected into a patient. The drug naturally accumulates in tumors. Simple irradiation with non-toxic visible or near IR light converts harmless oxygen into short-lived cytotoxic singlet oxygen that locally reacts with biomolecules and destroys the tumors.
Finally, we study organic solids for photovoltaic applications. We are interested in bridging molecular structure function to solid state structure function. We use computations to evaluate the utility of Covalent Organic Frameworks in photovoltaics and photocatalysis.
Currently we have 4 undergrads, 1 grad student, 2 postdocs.
David: What sparked your interest in chemistry? Was there anyone that influenced or inspired your interest in science?
Steven: Yes. I was always naturally interested in science and math. However, my AP Chem teacher in high school Clara Russo is really the one that encouraged me to pursue a career in chemistry. She encouraged me to apply to ACS Scholars Program, which I was accepted into. This program provides scholarships to underrepresented groups to go and study chemistry. She also encouraged me to go to NYU, as she had attended Hunter College in New York City.
David: When I joined OCDS, you were co-president. How did you get involved in OCDS?
Steven: At the time it was the “Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry” or OCDC. I met Nick Matsumoto & Iris Rauda at orientation in 2010. I remember that they described how UCLA and P & G worked together to create a community of graduate students–or support network to retain the talent of underrepresented minorities in Chemistry.
David: You were co-president of OCDS for quite a while, is there anything you learned in that position that you would like to share?
Steven: I became co-president with Crystal Valdez around 2011 and we both kept that post until January 2015.
I did learn a lot from OCDS. I learned how to manage people—an invaluable skill that you are not formally taught in graduate school. I was a leader of an increasingly large group of people—super important training for science. No matter what happened, I was a co-president so “the buck stops with me.” These are all relevant skills for being a professor.
I also learned a lot from mistakes I made. OCDS gave me invaluable insight and training for the current state of my career. OCDS was necessary stepping stone for being a professor. I learned a lot about group morale through social events with OCDS and how social comradery helps keep a group together.
David: When did you decide to pursue a professor position? Was this a goal you always had?
Steven: I was pretty set on being a professor after passing my qualifying exams. It made me realize that there is a lot of science that remains undiscovered. In my qualifying exam I had to defending an original idea to my exam committee. My committee supported this idea a lot and it eventually led to a two-author paper with Ken Houk.
Once I realized that I could identify an interesting project, execute the project, and publish it, I could start to imagine myself as an independent researcher at a university
David: Is there any networking you did in graduate school that benefits you to this day?
Steven: Oh yeah. I have lots of collaborations from connections I made in graduate school—I started my own network. One person I worked with in graduate school was Alejandro (Alex) Briseno at Penn State University.
I continued to work with him after graduate school and even published a paper with him during my post-doc at Harvard. These collaborations led to my interest in solid state chemistry. Alex helped connect me to Alan Aspuru-Guzik, my postdoc advisor.
David: Why is improving diversity in science important?
Steven: I think diversity is important because science is full of incredibly complex problems. To do good science, you need to look at problems at all different vantage points. Often scientists get stuck in “group thought” and this can prevent creative solutions from emerging. When there are more women and more underrepresented minorities, the conversation changes.
Science needs as much creativity and innovation as possible, diversity is necessary to promote that. As such, all people need to be represented and encouraged to participate in science.
Any words of advice for students considering a professor position?
Steven: I can break down this advice into three points:
These will make things easier and it makes your work tremendously rewarding. I can’t stress number 3 enough, go into being a professor for the students. It’s crucial.
*laughing* Wow I’ve never been asked that! I like those three points I just came up with. I’m going to have to use them again!
First blog post; how exciting! I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the urgent need to increase diversity in science and engineering (S&E) and how the Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science (OCDS) fits into this goal.
K-12 outreach is crucial for countless reasons; exposing children to captivating experiments provides them with new opportunities/outlooks and improves self-efficacy, potentially sparking a life-long passion in S&E. Events and groups like Explore Your Universe and CNSI Nanoscience Outreach offer amazing opportunities for UCLA students and faculty to get involved in K-12 S&E outreach. This post, however, will focus on why reaching out to students in S&E, especially underrepresented minorities (URMs), after high school (i.e. throughout their higher education and careers) is crucial in retaining diversity in our workforce.
Why bother with diversity?
Only recently did I realize how vital it is to articulate why diversity is important in S&E. I was under a naïve impression that basic concerns for equity and inclusion were enough to convince the general population that science should embrace people from different backgrounds. However, while becoming more vocal about increasing diversity, I have gradually heard some form of “why bother with diversity?” more and more. A common argument is that by creating more opportunities for URMs and women, prospects for white males are lowered... However, the U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce is growing faster than any other field, and if the end goal is to conduct excellent science that asks and answers questions relevant to our general population, diversity is not only something worth supporting, it is essential. I would love to hear more from other people on why they think diversity is crucial, but I’ll outline a few of my opinions.
To me, it seems obvious that diversity is necessary for better research, and hopefully the above points persuade those who are not convinced. The good news is that there are many efforts to increase diversity in S&E, including outreach groups like OCDS!
Why should we also direct outreach towards students pursuing higher education?
While most STEM outreach organizations emphasize creating workshops and demos for K-12 students, I believe OCDS is unique in that our outreach efforts focus on engaging undergraduate URMs and women in S&E as well as providing graduate students with professional development opportunities. So... why concentrate on these student groups, especially since they have already expressed interest in S&E?
Let’s face it, retention in the S&E “pipeline” is low across the board, but this attrition disproportionately effects URMs and women. Although there have been improvements in the leakiness of the “pipeline” in general and in regards to diversity, we still have prominent issues that ought to be addressed:
Unless otherwise noted, the statistics in this section are all from data reported by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and can be accessed here.
Women earn slightly more than 50% of bachelor’s degrees in the social and biological sciences, but women earn 20% or less of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, physics, and engineering.
These are just a few quantitative examples of poor retention of URMs and women within S&E. Having identified a problem like this, it’s important to now try to understand why this problem exists.
Why do URMs and women tend to leave S&E?
Numerous studies (a few examples with much more detail than I’ll provide are linked here, here, and here) have researched URMs and women who have dropped out of their majors or programs. The following reasons for leaving are emphasized throughout all these studies:
Unfortunately, all of these reasons are a product of deeper systemic problems. Additionally, lack of mentorship/role models is an issue that perpetuates a viscous cycle where students are less likely to participate in S&E because they do not often see someone similar to themselves succeeding in these fields, therefore decreasing the number of future URM and female mentors.
Some attempts at tackling these issues include grants and fellowships aimed towards financially aiding URMs and women. Additionally, there are many programs which provide URMs and women with undergraduate research opportunities, like UCLA’s UC-HBCU Initiative.
How does OCDS fit into all of this?
The following article is very helpful in outlining how research programs can help boost URM participation in science by mitigating some of the reasons I outlined above. From this, I have focused a few important points relevant to OCDS’s mission and outreach efforts:
OCDS holds two major outreach events each year, our Fall and Spring “Science and Engineering Showcases,” which aim to expose undergraduate URMs and women to a number of unique opportunities. Our Fall showcase is open to UCLA undergraduates while the Spring showcase is exclusively for community college students. These events include faculty research talks where S&E professors speak about their experience in pursuing science as a career and their current academic research. Students are encouraged to engage in conversation with professors about their background and research. Professors also join the students for breakfast and lunch, facilitating further, more intimate interactions/discussions.
In addition to faculty interactions, OCDS Showcases include workshops which aim to educate students on how to pursue fellowships and undergraduate research opportunities. This includes information about where to find funding and summer research positions specifically allotted for URMs and women, advice on how to approach professors about working in their labs, and information about general lab expectations.
OCDS Showcase workshops also include a section about what graduate school is like and how to apply to graduate school. Additionally, students are taken on a wide variety of S&E lab tours, so they can see a glimpse of academic research environments, thus exposing them to new potential career paths. OCDS has also recently begun hosting professional development events for S&E graduate students which help Master’s and PhD students gain necessary skills towards their future careers. Our first event was a “Salary Negotiation Workshop” which we held with the UCLA Career Center earlier this year.
Although the efforts put forth by OCDS and other organizations are admirable, the number of URMs and women in S&E is still disproportionately low, so it is apparent that more work is required for us to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion.
I end this post by asking readers what additional efforts you believe can further diversify the S&E workforce and, in particular, what you believe OCDS can do to continue promoting diversity in science.
Authors are members of OCDS who want to contribute their thoughts on particular subjects which are most important to them. Please feel free to email Marco if you are interested in posting on this blog! The topic and theme of your post is completely up to you and is meant to be written for a general audience.