I love chemistry. But how do I LOVE CHEMISTRY!!!!(?)

I’m at the point in my college experience when I’ve applied to, been accepted to, and visited some great graduate schools, and now I have just two weeks to decide where I may spend the next 4.5 – 6 years of my life. But, really, I’ve already made my decision, even if it hasn’t yet been formalized. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Of all the faculty I met with at the schools I visited, I was most interested in the lab of Professor Tom Muir at Princeton University. (I choose Princeton). However, at Princeton, the Muir lab is the only lab that I’m really interested in. This is problematic because if he chooses not to take me, or for some  reason I turn out to be a poor fit for his lab, then I don’t really have any other good options in the chemistry department.

With this in mind, I’ve been in correspondence with Professor Muir who suggested that I choose Princeton (of course) and arrive earlier in the summer, so that I could spend some time in the lab before classes started. “Essentially, if you show enthusiasm and good communication skills firing this initial period then you are in – obviously you have to like the lab culture as well. Usually things work out fine.” Sounds promising, right? Except that I’m more than a little apprehensive about having to show “enthusiasm and good communication skills”; I think anyone who knows me personally would understand.

My current research PI has been enormously helpful throughout my graduate school application and visiting process, and so again I went to her for advice. This is how I explained my quandary: I’m utterly incapable of faking enthusiasm (she interjected that I should never have to, and I agree), but even when I am honestly enthusiastic about something, I often find it hard to actively express my enthusiasm, and people find it hard to detect. Basically, I was worried that I would not convincingly communicate my enthusiasm for research in the Muir lab, and be rejected for that reason.

Her response was pretty much what I expected to hear – a confirmation of what I knew, what I had heard from others countless times – yet I found it no less disheartening. When I first joined her lab this past summer, she thought I came across as disinterested (ouch). While I did everything that was asked of me, I failed to relay the excitement of someone who was truly interested in their research. She went on to say that she knows me much better now, and realizes that I am interested and committed to my project. Yet, she knows this mostly because she has gotten better at interpreting me, and suggested that I would benefit greatly from being more expressive and taking more initiative. While she isn’t wrong in detecting that my interest in lab research has increased over the past two semesters, I’d argue that I was far from ‘disinterested’ when I first joined the lab.

I wrote an earlier post about being an introvert, in which I described myself as “just taking a while to warm up to people,” a statement with which my PI mostly agreed. But in this case, at Princeton I don’t have 9 months, or even a semester to win people over. I might have a month. In the first lab I joined (for undergraduate research) it took months before I was the one to initiate a casual conversation with the grad student whose desk was beside mine – and he was probably the friendliest guy in the lab. Why? I don’t know why – I just didn’t.

At the same time, I do realize that I tend to conduct myself in a more restrained manner, especially with strangers, and that can give off a cold or aloof impression. People are always saying “just be yourself,” but what if “being myself” is what’s limiting my opportunities? I don’t think I need changing or “fixing,” but I would hate to learn that my introversion and social restraint are major handicaps. So how do I convincingly show enthusiasm that others actually interpret as enthusiasm? Increase my frequency of the words “awesome” and “cool?” Smile more? Give more thumbs up? To me, those suggestions sound so silly they verge on comical.

But in all seriousness: should I just acknowledge that I am unlikely to please someone who is looking for “enthusiasm and good communication skills,” and choose to attend another university at which there are more faculty whose research I find less interesting, but labs I think I could also be happy working in? Can I change myself to better fit these criteria? (And if so, then how?). To those people who know me personally (I know some of you read this blog – friends, classmates, etc), I’d be especially interested in knowing what you think.

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About evajge

A friend once told me that all I eat is chocolate and cheese. I was both disturbed and amused to realize that he was right.
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5 Responses to I love chemistry. But how do I LOVE CHEMISTRY!!!!(?)

  1. Hannah says:

    I can relate to so much of this. There have been many situations when I’m incredibly enthusiastic about my research– in my own head. Externally, not so much. I might be almost as curious what any others have to say on this matter as you are.

    That having been said, my vote would be to pursue a place in the Muir lab. If you’re going to dedicate a 4.5-6 year chunk of your life to your project, I think it best to give yourself the best chances of really enjoying it. As for that first month, maybe find slightly less-conventional ways of showing enthusiasm? Rather than increasing usage of “awesome” and “cool,” ask lots of questions, put in as much time as you can, and in general illustrate that you’re working on your project not just to get work done, but because you care about it and you want answers. Talk to others in the lab, at least a little bit- maybe it’s easier as a grad student? (I would even argue smiling probably can’t hurt you.) I’d also like to think that if Dr. Muir knows you’re going to Princeton specifically for his lab (and there’s nothing else there you’re interested in) then he’ll do his best to give you a spot in the lab.

    Regardless of your choice, good luck and congratulations!

    • evajge says:

      Thanks Hannah! As I was writing this, you actually briefly entered my thoughts as someone else who isn’t super bubbly or outgoing, but who manages to be likable and academically successful :)

  2. Josh Z says:

    I sometimes have a similar communication issue when discussing serious neuroscience topics with professors. For instance, I went to a great lecture by Roderick MacKinnon, a Nobel laureate, at Rockefeller. He’s a fantastic lecturer and the new findings he presented were very thought provoking, but I had trouble conveying my enthusiasm outwardly. After the lecture, everyone was going on about how absolutely fantastic it was, while I was still mulling over the information alone in my head. I knew I had come across as somewhat indifferent, because a former PI of mine half-jokingly asked, “What, do you know this stuff already?” I obviously hadn’t because it was recent, unpublished work from MacKinnon’s lab. And yet my response to him still seemed to lack the same fervor of the lecture hall.

    During your summer stint in Muir’s lab (assuming you choose Princeton), you may find it easier to show enthusiasm through taking initiative or by showing eagerness in understanding whatever system/model/approach the lab works with. When I’m talking to professors whose work I’m genuinely interested in, I have this habit of trying to finish their thoughts (and sometimes even sentences). It’s usually some a-ha! moment that compels me to speak out. To most professors, (I hope) it shows that I’m actively engaged in the discussion instead of passively absorbing information or following instructions. My composure also changes. I move closer to the edge of my seat and my speech picks up tempo. Sometimes I ask to draw something out to help explain whatever I’m thinking. (But that’s just me.)

    It might be useful to read scientific articles related to your subject on your own time (you probably already do). You could weave these into your conversation casually or simply ask a lab mate or the PI if they had read the article, and if so, what their thoughts on it are. If you really do end up loving it in the Muir lab, you don’t have to rely on shallow gestures like “awesome” or “cool stuff,” which can sound almost patronizing in the wrong tone. I think one really important thing to keep in mind when entering grad school is that you know relatively nothing compared to your lab mates–and that it’s OK! Don’t be afraid to pester postdocs or the PI about questions you have. That initiative shows your enthusiasm and willingness to be an active part of the lab.

    TL;DR: You’re not alone. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to seek out help. Smile.

    • evajge says:

      I also occasionally find myself wanting to finish people’s sentences when they’re saying something really interesting and I know where they’re going with their thought, but I was actually concerned it’d have the opposite effect – that they’d think “so you think you can say it better than me?” and that they’d rather not be interrupted. But maybe not. I’m sure it’s also a lot about attitude/tone.

      I definitely agree about taking more initiative though. I think I’m still at the point where I think a lot of my own ideas are second-rate and kind of stupid, which makes me reluctant to vocalize them. Which I realize is silly because even if my ideas are occasionally stupid, no one expects perfection (especially from undergrads and first-year grad students).

      • Josh Z says:

        About the interruption thing, it really depends on the PI and the rhythm of the conversation. I can see how it could be annoying.

        I’m also still second guessing my ideas, especially when I’m with more experienced folk (i.e. everyone else at grad school). In lectures during my interviews, I would have a good question in my head, but I wouldn’t ask it for fear of sounding stupid. And then a few minutes later someone else would ask a similar question (though usually more articulated).

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