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Recap: Term 2

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Recap: Term 2

Olivia Wilkins

Two terms of graduate school down, 21 to go (assuming the average of about 5.7 years or 23 terms for Caltech chemists). Six months in and I’m a whole 8.7% of the way there. On the plus side, after next term I’ll both breach 10% and have completed all my classes!

Some things haven't changed since my first term:

  • I'm still ecstatic that I'm at Caltech.
  • I still love teaching scientific writing.
  • Being a mother in grad school is still fun.
  • Pasadena is still a great place to live.
  • Cam and I are still simpatico (even though he still encourages Alex's excessive demands for coffee breaks and frozen yogurt).

Some things, however, are new. Here are some of the highlights.

I completed another course toward my degree, bringing the tally up to four and leaving one for the Spring 2017 term. In Winter 2017, I took something-something-planetary-habitability (Ay/Ge 159), more commonly known as astrobiology. This is another interdisciplinary sub-discipline of astrophysics, specifically combining… you guessed it!... astronomy and biology. While this has some crossover with astrochemistry (my research area), I learned a lot about the thinking and methods behind astrobiology. Astrobiology isn’t so much about studying the existence of extraterrestrial biological systems (since there aren’t any that we know of yet) so much as the probability of where biological systems could exist. It’s about habitability, the -ability part of which defines possibility and separates habitable from inhabited. Planetary Science grad student Mike Wong took us on an adventure to unfold the different stories about the emergence of life, encouraging us to fit together puzzle pieces shaped like our own research disciplines. My piece looked like modeling glycine (the simplest amino acid) in protoplanetary disks (rings of dust and gas around young stars that evolve into a planetary system), assuming it exists in the interstellar medium in the first place. The project was challenging and even frustrating at first, but according to Mike Russell at JPL who came to talk to us about hydrothermal vents and green rust, "creativity is born from frustration". And indeed it is. As a result of the project, I learned about something new in the field of astrochemistry (basics of protoplanetary disk modeling) and was able to apply it to something new (true to my love of interdisciplinary science).

I began a research project. I’m looking at Orion KL—the Kleinmann-Low nebula in Orion—through the eyes of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile. Orion KL is the most active star forming region within the diffuse Orion Nebula south of Orion’s belt along his sword. The first steps are to see what molecules are out there. There are lots of cyanides (namely methyl cyanide, ethyl cyanide, and vinyl cyanide) as well as oxygen-bearing species like methanol and methyl formate. All of these molecules are complex organic molecules (COMs) that could provide insight to the beginnings of chemistry, chemical evolution throughout the universe, and even prebiotic chemistry—the chemistry that leads to the emergence of life.

I joined Caltech’s chemistry club in demonstrating chemistry alongside some awesome undergrads. I had a lot of fun learning some new chemistry demonstrations, and I also learned that science outreach isn’t important just for K-12 students; it is also important to foster excitement from their parents/guardians, too.

I participated in my first grad school recruitment weekend. Ever. I volunteered to help with Caltech Chemistry’s two recruitment weekend in March. Since I was in my third-trimester of pregnancy a year ago, I was grounded in Germany. I got to experience the exhaustion and over-stimulation and fun that is recruitment. I can’t imagine how it would feel as a prospective to receive all of that information at once!

I began the journey toward two teaching certificates, namely the Certificates of Interest and of Practice in University Teaching offered through CPET—the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching. This consisted of attending TeachWeek events (including a panel focused on empowering learning, a talk and workshop about transparency in teaching, a seminar about transforming general chemistry into a more active hence effective learning experience for undergrads, and a rapid-fire session giving ideas and practices that can be incorporated into your own teaching), taking Principles of University Teaching and Learning in STEM (E 110), and attending CPET journal club meetings centered around active learning.

I found out I was accepted to co-teach a chemistry tutorial with none other than Cam. Chemistry tutorials (Ch 101) are a new CPET initiative to give grad students and post-docs hands-on teaching experience, from proposing a course (and simultaneously applying for the opportunity) to designing and executing it. Cam and I are giving a tutorial called Astrochemistry: Spectroscopy in Space. (You can see what we’re up to on Twitter via #astrochem101.) We had to design a syllabus and course outline and will be giving lectures during the Spring 2017 course beginning in just two weeks! I also pulled from my TeachWeek experiences with transparent teaching as well as another CPET seminar about active learning in STEM presented by Dr. Amy Vollmer from Swarthmore College to design a progressive writing assignment. The assignment allows students to connect lecture material to an area of astrochemistry research of personal interest throughout the course through short (1-3-page) writing assignments culminating in a short booklet to be used as the basis for a final presentation. I’m eager to see how it turns out!


For now, I'll enjoy my two weeks of spring "break" — doing research uninterrupted... except for the lesson planning of course!