Revelations on starting a postdoc
As some of you know, I finished my journalism fellowship and defended my thesis in August, and have now moved on to a postdoc. Between defending and trying to get my bearings in a new city and a new lab, I haven’t had much time to think about this blog, but my friend Kaisa and I have challenged each other to do a post a week in November, so we’ll see how it goes! Here’s my first.
I have a confession to make: for much of the past few years, I was convinced I was a bad chemist.
In large part, this had to do with with my research field. As a physical chemist, I spent most of my time shooting lasers at things and writing computer code, rather than mixing chemicals together to make reactions happen.
The few times I did “do chemistry” in the latter sense, my project was such that it rarely made sense for me to try a reaction more than once or twice. If it failed the first time around, it was better for me to move on to something else rather than try to troubleshoot it.
The upshot of all of this was that I didn’t “do” chemistry very often, and when I did, the failures were much more frequent than the successes.
So I was a bit terrified to start a postdoc in a lab where I would actually be expected to do some synthesis. What if I couldn’t do it? What if every reaction I tried resulted in failure?
But two months in, having had the opportunity to try and re-try reactions and troubleshoot them until they work, I’ve realized that I’m better at this stuff than I thought I was. And I know more of these techniques than I thought I did.
Need to do an air-sensitive reaction? Oh yeah, one of the few molecules I made during grad school required me to use a Schlenk line. I know how to do that.
Need to recrystallize a product to remove impurities? Well, I haven’t done recrystallizations since sophomore organic lab, but I know how, and it’s not that hard to pick it up again. Just like riding a bike, really. I can do that.
And need to characterize the polymer I’ve made? Gel-permeation chromatography is just like doing HPLC to purify proteins. I can do that, too.
I don’t claim that I’m ever going to be a purely synthetic chemist, nor do I really want to. My interests really lie in understanding and manipulating the physical behavior of molecules and materials, rather than in devising new synthetic methods.
But at the same time, it feels really good to know that I can do synthesis when I need to. It feels like it removes a lot of the roadblocks to delving into new research areas. If there’s something I want to study, I don’t necessarily have to wait for someone to make it for me; if I want to, I can make it myself.
And beyond that, there’s also something really empowering about knowing I can transform simple molecules into things that are much more complex. Knowing I can take a bunch of colorless liquids and make sparkling yellow crystals, or knowing that I can take simple small molecules and string them into chains in a controlled way is sort of like knowing I can do magic.
I know I’ve still got a long way to go as a postdoc. There’s a lot to learn, and I’m sure I’ll run into many roadblocks I have to overcome along the way.
But for the moment, I feel like I’m discovering something new about myself, and it’s helping build my confidence that I can actually DO this.
Apparently I’m a chemist after all.