Written by: Casey Chan '23
Edited by: Megan List '24
“What is my next step?”
This question is a constant for students, no matter what level of education they are pursuing. College students in different fields must consider a variety of options, including going to graduate school, medical school, law school, or beginning to work in a professional field. Although the choice is widely dependent on the student’s future goals, there are also certain preconceptions about each career field. Students’ goals and social pressures usually coincide to influence a student’s choice after undergraduate schooling. One of the most prominent considerations for students in science fields are graduate schools. At first, the entire idea of graduate school, and what it entails, may seem somewhat mysterious. Today, Natasha Vargo and Matt Lueckheide, two fourth-year graduate students from Professor Robinson’s inorganic chemistry lab, are here to give us the inside scoop.
Natasha graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and double majored in chemistry and geography. She had always been interested in the application of chemistry to problems in the environment, but was ready to focus on synthetic chemistry in graduate school. Matt also graduated with a major in chemistry and a minor in physics from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Matt had known he wanted to become a chemistry teacher when he began his undergraduate career and after taking organic chemistry, he realized that he wanted to become a college professor.
A major deciding factor for both Natasha and Matt in deciding to pursue graduate school studies was that most STEM PhD programs provide a wage. They both wanted to explore chemistry, and graduate school has given them the ability to focus on their own research projects and publish academic research. Their graduate mentor, Professor Jerome Robinson, himself, published multiple papers that are still recognized today. The promise of publishing papers is a huge drawing factor to graduate institutions, as these papers allow a researcher to introduce novel work to the field. Due to the more focused nature of graduate programs, being a graduate student provides a deeper and more individual process of learning than in undergraduate programs.
Natasha stated that a positive aspect of being at Brown was that professors have treated her professionally. In the past, she felt that she was not expected to know the depth of a topic, and her professors were not as receptive to her individual analysis as her graduate mentors. Now, she is expected to know her field. When people ask her questions, she knows that they truly want her input. Similarly, Matt feels that graduate school has given him a much deeper understanding of topics that were only treated on a surface level in college. He especially notes that, instead of his learning being segmented based on tests or projects, he focuses on remembering important lessons and learns how to apply this newfound knowledge in all situations.
While graduate school may seem like a place of great understanding and learning, it is definitely not an easy journey. Depictions of grad schools in the media represent a singular idea of a grad student: sleep deprived, overworked, and tired.
But, despite such negative representation, both Natasha and Matt agree that, although graduate school can be difficult, it is never hard to find enjoyable times. For example, one can often find brownies and baked goods waiting in front of the lab in celebration of accomplishments or big milestones, and the group often gathers together for fun game nights, sometimes virtually.
However, while experiences at graduate school may not be the same across the board, they agree that there are times when they are forced to question their understanding. It can be discouraging to receive feedback about projects, even if it is constructive criticism. However, this only seems to emphasize the importance of what Matt calls a “good support system.” Thankfully, especially at smaller programs such as the one at Brown, it is not difficult to meet other students and to become close with your graduate mentor.
Both Matt and Natahsa are currently writing their own papers based on original research, which will be published soon. Due to years of working with Professor Robinson, they now feel efficient and comfortable both with their work and with the way the chemistry lab is run at Brown. They also credit Professor Robinson with his supportive mentorship and willingness to teach. When you step into Professor Robinson’s lab, it feels like a small community. Each person works independently, but still collaborates to make a team environment possible.
Professor Robinson’s lab has a sustainable chemistry focus. All of the team members’ projects have different chemistry bases, but overall the lab studies different processes that could be used in a sustainable battery or recyclable fuel source. Matt’s work mostly centers around oxygen reduction by hydrogen peroxide. He aims to focus on the applications of hydrogen peroxide, a very reactive compound, in making new sources of recyclable energy. Natasha works with copper dioxygen biomimetic complexes, specifically a complex that is found within lobsters. Many enzymes have copper centers, so her work has possible biological applications in mimicking enzyme functions. One of the defining characteristics of her work is being able to derive solutions of different and vibrant colors.
Overall, each of their projects has multiple applications, which makes potential uses endless. Since the focus on their projects is somewhat specific, it is difficult to conjecture exactly how their chemistry discoveries will be used. But, they both acknowledge that they are invested in their work, and often talk about problems they are facing in the lab with others in the lab group. The community in their graduate program allows for such discussion and theoretical development.
Not only does graduate school provide them with conceptual knowledge, but also knowledge of important skills in chemistry. Natasha and Matt have learned presentation skills in a scientific setting, how to work with different instruments, and how to publish papers for the general scientific community. Graduate school has given them the opportunity to expand on knowledge to use in their careers, as well as provided good memories.
One of the best memories that Matt has from graduate school was actually not in the lab - he remembers getting a home run during an intramural softball game. Natasha similarly remembers a non-chemistry related experience, when she and Matt were playing Lizzo’s song “Jerome” in the lab (in honor of the one and only Jerome Robinson), and had to run to turn it off when he entered the lab. This truly shows the familiar dynamic that has been fostered in the chemistry graduate studies program at Brown. One time, Jerome even waited two hours in a line at PVDonuts, one of Providence’s most popular donut destinations, so that he could drop off donuts for his lab group members.
Overall, Matt suggests that it’s often good to talk to others about their experiences in grad school before making a decision about next academic steps. Although graduate school programs are academically challenging, both he and Natasha believe that you cannot be intimidated if you are pursuing a subject that you truly enjoy.
Special thanks to Matt Lueckheide and Natasha Vargo for this interview, as well as Professor Jerome Robinson.
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