Fear Not: Chemistry Grad Students Follow Passion for Great Science

Students on chemistry lab tour
September 23, 2021

Incoming Yale Chemistry graduate students scouted the lay of the land in a full day of activities on Aug. 27, including an orientation game and virtual symposium.

A whirlwind scavenger hunt for the teaching labs, machine shop, glassblowing facility, and instrumentation center – key stopping points along their Ph.D. journey – sent small groups of socially distanced first-years scurrying through labyrinthine corridors and walkways of the chemistry buildings on Science Hill. The highlight of the tour was the donning of the famed blue lab coats.

The introduction to the students’ new home for the next 5 - 6 years switched to a virtual format in the annual Yale Chemistry Symposium. Organizing student co-chairs Michelle Luo and Linda Zuckerman welcomed a Zoom crowd of 140 students, faculty, and staff to celebrate research and community in the form of a faculty welcome address, graduate student research presentations and poster sessions, and awards ceremony.

The second-year grad students organize the symposium every year. Contrary to years past, however, there were public health protocols regarding in-person gatherings.

“We want to thank the entire second-year class and administration as there has been significant dedication and originality devoted to bringing the department together safely,” said Zuckerman, “and for that effort, we are proud of our peers.”

- Linda Zuckerman, second-year Chemistry graduate student and event co-chair

In his keynote address, Tianyu Zhu, assistant professor of chemistry, shared his research on solid-state materials in quantum technology, thoughts on his own graduate student experience, and his path to Yale. He encouraged the first-year students to explore as many research directions as possible.

“The more you navigate, the more likely you are to find passion,” Zhu said, “and when you’re passionate about your research, you’re going to be fully motivated to do great science and, more importantly, be happy in graduate school.”

- Tianyu Zhu, assistant professor of chemistry

As a postdoc, Zhu learned the importance of independent thinking and judgment, which he said is critical for transitioning from student to Pl.

“Fear not, you’re going to develop these skills in your Ph.D. training,” Zhu said. “This is the reason you came to Yale. From tackling difficult experiments, reading and writing papers, to observing your advisors and professors, you’re going to develop the ability to think independently.”

- tianyu zhu, assistant professor of chemistry

Students had the opportunity to see first-hand exactly what Zhu promised as they heard from six senior-level graduate students about their research. Edward deRamon, Yannan Liu, Conor Rooney, Daniel Konstantinovsky, Matthew Espinosa, and Maria-Elena Liosi presented a wide continuum of projects from across the 23 faculty research groups. From a materials chemist’s promising energy storage method with excess carbon dioxide to a computationalist’s collaborative breakthrough discoveries in antivirals related to HIV and SARS-CoV-2, students received a sampling of science to help them choose a lab by the end of their first year.

The audience also heard from Patrick Holland, Conkey P. Whitehead Professor of Chemistry, director of Graduate Student Climate and Diversity, and the Yale Chemistry Diversity and Climate Committee chair. He shared resources and invited students to participate in recruiting, climate, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including the new DEI Advocate peer support role.

Kicking off the awards ceremony, Jon Ellman, Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Pharmacology and director of Graduate Studies, announced the T. F. Cooke Teaching Awards recipients. Seth Herzon, Milton Harris ‘29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, presented the Chemistry Graduate Research Fellowship Awards.

“We started these fellowships as a way to recognize, support, and encourage our mid-career students in their 3rd and 4th year.” Herzon said, “The graduate students are the backbone of our department.”

- Seth Herzon, Milton Harris ‘29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry

For her dedication to building and supporting the safety culture in the department, Sooyun Choi won the Yale Joint Safety Team’s Safety Award.

In the last hour of the event, attendees dispersed to one of 28 poster breakout rooms on graduate research and five student group booths. With an overview of the types of science conducted by the many faculty research groups available to them and a glimpse at the possible impacts their own investigations will one day have on society, students came away eager to delve into further conversation within their program.

Research at Yale Chemistry

View a selection of the posters, and explore the seven research areas that drive scientific exploration and innovation at Yale Chemistry.