Electrical Engineering/Plan II senior Sherry Cheng

Sherry ChengThe research lab is my kitchen. I don't get to tinker with cookie sheets and frying pans in the dormitories, so I take my creative energies into the lab. It's therapeutic. Every other afternoon, I step off the elevator onto the seventh floor of the Environmental Engineering building and walk through two sets of double doors into the microbiology classroom. I choose a relatively clean lab coat from an array of abused ones passed down from generations of students, pick up a pair of goggles in bench drawer #3, and waltz out of the room in a superman strut as if my new apparel unveils my superpowers. A biohazard warning sign welcomes me in front of my lab. I unlock the doors, turn on the lights, and take a deep breath-I'm home.

My internship this semester turned the myth of graduate research into a realizable goal. I used to say I was interested in going to graduate school, but I never actually knew what that meant. After taking on this internship, I'm relieved to find that I enjoy it. And I can make a better judgment about whether to pursue a PhD in the future.

I learned there are many aspects to graduate research. The most obvious aspect is working in the lab. I assist a graduate mentor in his research on bromate reduction in a biologically active carbon (BAC) filter. With his guidance and nurture, I attempt to battle physical, chemical, and biological processes in my lab notebook and utilize them in public health related research. I learned many laboratory techniques such as bacterial plating, measuring OD readings, and taking influent/effluent samples. A big part of my pleasant experience stems from my mentor's natural ability to be a good mentor. He's instructive, patient, and easy to understand. He also helped me many times outside of the lab such as sharing his organic chemistry flash cards and editing my summer research application essays.

Besides working with test tubes and beakers, a second aspect to graduate research is working in a team. My first lab group meeting flew by in a blur. Sitting in a black office chair, arms rested on a wooden conference table, I couldn't keep my heart from racing with excitement as my eyes jumped from graduate students to professors, flanked on both sides of my seat. I never spoke after I introduced myself, and I could barely decipher the jargon that flowed effortlessly from their lips. But I didn't care. I had found the heart of research. Ideas spread through the room like wildfire, molded and tossed. Graduate students delivered and defended reports one after another. Professors poured out years of experience in compliments and critiques. I could see that an invisible intellectual force bound the group in harmony.

Through my time in the research lab, I learned that a lot of its dynamics run like a family. Everyone has their own responsibilities. You take turns ordering supplies, washing the glassware, sterilizing the waste. Everyone gives each other a hand. You introduce yourself to the new girl, answer her sophomoric questions with a smile, and explain things to her patiently. And everyone works together to resolve conflict. You make schedules for using the IC equipment, get together every three weeks to talk about life in the lab, and you don't gossip. So in a way, the best preparation for research life is not how many well-plates you can fill with a pipette in fifteen minutes. Anyone can learn that with practice. It's really how well you get along with other people, even with your own family. Because, in a way, you're about to join a new one.

The third aspect of graduate school I discovered is its preparation as a career in teaching. I always struggled with the concept of being a professor. I loved the idea of teaching and learning (and more learning), but there was always this research concept that posed a stumbling block to me. I liked doing research-but not as an end in itself. I wasn't interested in fastening myself to one project for the rest of my life, in which my self worth depended on the project's success. I was more enthusiastic about working and discovering things with other people, getting stuck and solving problems as a team, and then celebrating together. It's hard to celebrate with yourself. Furthermore, I liked the prospect of guiding students in their learning, enhancing their self discovery, and being a part of their life purpose.

My ideas about being a professor changed after interviewing Dr. Kirisits. After speaking with Dr. Kirisits, my impression was that professors can be a sort of guide. There's a lot of planning and directing and designing involved, but in the end it's about people. And that sounded good to me. Very good, in fact. Granted there are things that will get in the way like funding and proposals, but that's what Plan II is for, right? (ha!) With that perspective in mind, grad school is not a daunting escapade or a chore. It will be hard, but it's a natural process of the discipleship program. And I will enjoy it for all it's worth.