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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 6

Olivia Wilkins

Today is the start of spring term at Caltech, which means I am 26% of the way through grad school. (What!? Over a quarter of the way there!???) This is assuming I'll complete my PhD in the average 5.7 years, or 23 terms, for Caltech chemists. But if my timeliness in setting my candidacy exam is any indicator (I'm a couple months late, but hey, I've been busy.)....

Anyway, here are the highlights!


I got my wisdom teeth out. Okay, this has nothing to do with grad school, except for the part where I got them out five days before I submitted my third telescope proposal, this time for the GBT. My teeth hadn't fully emerged, so my gums were getting irritated to the point of being numbingly painful. It was definitely time to get them removed.

I'm still crossing my fingers that wearing my GBT T-shirt to surgery brought me good fortune!

I attended two teaching conferences: SABER West and SoCal PKAL. Both of these are dedicated to more effective STEM education, bringing together dozens of scientists and educators to discuss effective (and ineffective) teaching practices.

At SABER West, held at UC Irvine, I learned about universities' support (or lack thereof) for students of color,

trends in higher education in Europe versus the U.S.,

an innovative method for making exam feedback more impactful,

and highlighting diversity while covering STEM (specifically biology) content through Scientist Spotlight homework assignments.

At SoCal PKAL, held at UCLA, I celebrated my 25th birthday by learning about the science of successful learning,

participated in a workshop about helping students engage with scientific literature through what is called the CREATES process,

and saw (and was entertained by) a variety of active learning demonstrations for [physical] chemistry.

At both conferences, I talked with people about the teaching certificates at Caltech, managed by the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching (CPET), of which I am one of the two co-directors.

I taught Scientific Writing (Ch/ChE 91) for a fourth term, revising the assignment prompts I introduced last term as well as incorporating an official grading policy for the first time.

I hosted a Project Scientist expedition for about 30 girls. I coordinated three rotating sessions with the help of six other volunteers to show kids ages 4 to 12 years old about astrochemistry and planetary science, from planet formation to comets and meteorites. This will be the topic of a future post, in progress!

Last term was packed with teaching and proposal writing, including work toward several proposals due this month (the deadline of one—JWST—has been pushed back to February 2019 at the earliest; alas, the James Webb Space Telescope may never launch...). I also wrote a piece for the newly launched Caltech Letters, an online platform that brings research written by the researchers themselves in articles written for non-specialists; my article is Chemical Archaeology: Digging up our Chemical Past in Interstellar Space. I ended the term staying at home to take care of Alex and take on more co-parenting responsibilities while he recovers from surgery. For the last week or so, I've continued the proposal writing—and preparing for teaching a chemistry tutorial course about chemistry throughout the universe—with Güni on my lap in between walks with the family.

Between the wisdom teeth coming out, the enormous time commitment that was the Project Scientist expedition, the seemingly endless list of proposals to write, and the stress of still not having scheduled my candidacy exam, the term ended well. I'm grateful for a supportive partner who brings me iced tea while I'm working from home, as well as a great advisor who makes putting my family first (as I have been staying home) in the midst of proposal season a guilt-free endeavor.

I'm looking forward to moving on to a new term and soon, hopefully, a new stage in my graduate school career.