Wednesday, October 2, 2013

All Work and No Play

By Mathew Fhaner, Postdoc USDA

This piece was originally published in the July 2013 Graduate & Postdoctoral Chemist. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American Chemical Society. Some names and events may have been changed to protect privacy.

Often times, graduate school feels like a never-ending ocean of work, classes, seminars, presentations, and teaching; need I go on? In the whirlpool of our ongoing to-do lists, free time seems to be as elusive as obtaining data that will make our PIs crack a smile. There is, however, an oasis tucked away deep inside the graduate school desert. I will tell you about the day I discovered the hidden gem and the impact it had on my graduate school career. At the end of my second semester in graduate school I was asked to participate in an event organized by our local ACS section’s Younger Chemists Committee (YCC). The event was at a local science museum in celebration of National Chemistry Week. It was a simple demo: Children walked up to my booth and gazed in wonder as I made a marshmallow expand and shrink using a vacuum chamber. I soon realized that the act of changing the size of the sugary treat, which seemed mundane to me, was an act of pure wizardry to these kids. I was sold. Within six months I had taken over leadership of our local YCC; and with a small group of friends, we began to grow our group’s influence.

Creating a Sense of Community

In the past four years, our local section’s YCC has grown from doing two demos during National Chemistry Week to becoming a nationally recognized group. We took part in creating and proctoring
chemistry events for our state Science Olympiad, traveled to local elementary schools to put on demos, hosted social events to create a sense of community within our department, and collaborated with other local sections in an effort to bring undergraduate chemistry clubs together to test their knowledge.


Rewarding in Multiple Ways

All of these events took many hours of correspondence, phone calls, meetings, preptime, traveling, and, of course, putting on the various events. Yet, it never felt like work. I realized that it was because I was having fun—Being surrounded by my friends made the experience enjoyable, all while increasing interest in chemistry among thousands of people of all ages. The hard work was handsomely rewarded through grants, fellowships, and national recognition by the ACS. However, what has stuck with me the longest are the memories created with my friends, which helped relieve the stress that is symbiotic with graduate school. During my orientation week, one of the faculty members was explaining that graduate school was what you made of it. After my time in the YCC, I couldn’t agree more.

Matthew Fhaner, Ph.D, performed his graduate work at Michigan State University and recently graduated with his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. He spent four years as a member of the MSU Younger Chemists Committee and plans to continue outreach work after graduation.


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