If you’ve been around longer than 20 years, you’ve done a lot of things, a lot of things have happened to you, and it becomes hard to remember why you chose one path and not another. In my case, I’m in my second year out of school and working, and I have to admit that if someone asked me in high school, “Where will you be in 10 years?” the answer would not have been working on the next generation of materials and their interaction with humans and the environment.
I’ve been working on a series I call Connecting the Dots of my Career to help myself make sense of where I’ve been and how my interests have grown and evolved, so I may better understand where I’m looking to go next. The writing is driven by my school and work experiences, but I’ve found that many of my personal relationships are inextricable from the narrative. I’ve been writing it in parts, and here is each one with its own teaser.
Part 1. My plan changed a few times in college:
I chose Chemical Engineering. Why I made this choice, I cannot remember today. But 3 useful things came out of that choice:
#3 - Because of a scheduling error, a ChemE course in Cell Engineering that all of us wanted to take junior year conflicted with the required Physiological Foundations course… What course did we end up taking? Micro/Nanotechnology.
Part 2. Laying the groundwork for breakthroughs unknown, in my first two years of grad school:
The funny/unexpected thing about all those AFM hours is that it ended up being a minimal component of the ellipsometry work… but later it was crucial to my report on free-standing films and for measurements of sub-nanometer thickness graphene sheets.
Part 3. The lowest point of my time in grad school occurred, but I turned things around to graduate on a strong note, while several useful ideas were planted, in my last three years:
Looking back at it now, I realize I effectively staked my PhD career on this technique… I faced a lengthy struggle to make it work well… An accumulation of frustrations gave rise to self-doubt. Thoughts of “file paperwork to get the Masters degree and leave” crossed my mind.
Part 4. To Sweden and back, with a clearer understanding of the impact I want my work to have:
Nanomaterials will improve many technologies, and consumers will compel us to prove that the materials don’t harm them. Having come down this path, immersing myself in nano-health-risk studies and gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges in using CNMs commercially, I’ve begun to envision my potential next step. I believe my knowledge can contribute to the development of actual products, not just published papers and patents. I think the following two areas are ones in which my understanding and skills may prove effective…
The title of these posts, Connecting the Dots of my Career, is inspired by the first story in the famous Steve Jobs commencement speech.
4) Drinking more coffee than ever before: To say coffee is big in Sweden is an understatement. I’d say it’s one of the irreplaceable threads in the social fabric there. Two folks can discuss anything, so long as coffee’s been offered and accepted If you have a day full of meetings, my thought is to select the espresso shot from the machine. The smaller volume of liquid will save you from repeated bathroom trips.
5) Meaningful relaxation: Interestingly, when you go to a coffee shop over there, you don’t see people studying. No laptops. (Working all afternoon in a cafe while hunched over that single coffee you grudgingly paid for – a most American phenomenon!) I was never a study-in-cafe type in the U.S. but being over there certainly nurtured my love for going into places that serve cake and pie along with their coffee… in the company of friends… to have actual conversations.
6) Identifying ways to create value: I was extremely fortunate to complement my research work with a program on how to commercialize new technologies originating in research. During the program, I got to actually develop some new partnerships along the way of testing one of my ideas on graphene dispersions. (I won’t go into the details here; I did give a presentation about it in Stockholm last month – watch it if you’re interested.) The great thing about doing this program was (a) the new thought processes I absorbed and can implement for future ideas, and (b) discovering that I find this new area of work – related to technology transfer, not the same as basic research – super interesting, challenging, and worth pursuing further. And of course, (c) getting introduced to a fantastic mentor who wasn’t hesitant to share wisdom from his broad life and business experiences. Thanks, Sten.
I’m going to end here. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. For example, I learned plenty of other good and useful things from my colleagues at Uppsala University. But those are for only me to savor, right now.
The first part of my list is here.
[Picture: This cat lived at our house. She came to me for all her head-scratching needs. Yes, even in the bathroom sink.]
This is a list, in no particular order… of some things I learned and skills I cultivated during my 14 months living and working in Sweden.
1) Playing acoustic guitar. A winter with 4 hours of daylight means you need to have a good indoor hobby. Glad I picked up the guitar in October last year. Thanks for the tips, Josef and Gunnar. And Raili, thanks for letting my guitar accompany your ukelele at xmas.
2) Cooking without recipes. Having a properly stocked kitchen means you can experiment and not fear mistakes. Also, doing more chemistry at my job somehow led me to think about various cooking techniques in terms of heat and water distribution, for example, and a better understanding of what exactly was happening inside the pot or pan. And, thanks, Farid, for keeping such a lagom kitchen.
3) The Swedish language. My first month in Uppsala, my pronunciation was so bad, I would ask for something in Swedish at the store, to have the clerk reply to me in English. Thanks, Daniel, for all the useful social phrases; Henrik, for all the stuff I’ve asked for help with translating at work and over gchat (cumin, coriander, what?); and, the municipal gov’t, for covering the cost of the Sfi language course. What a difference it makes when a trained teacher explains the nuances of pronunciation to you. I felt I turned a corner in the winter, when I called a restaurant and booked a table, entirely in Swedish. And then again this summer, in Copenhagen, having an extensive conversation with a Swedish-speaking Dane in a noisy bar. So I try to keep up with the language. And thus, thanks go to each one of you who continues to tolerate my suboptimal listening comprehension during our Skype calls. Vad sa du? Igen?
… It’s getting late, so I will write the rest of my list in a second post, sometime soon, while the thoughts are still fresh and interesting!
[Photograph: I took it in Smögen, on the west coast of Sweden, when I was there for a workshop last summer]