Physics Pre Grad Intern Sunny Soth

Sunny SothMy mentor’s name is Robert and he is in the Physics program. His research deals primarily with molecular dynamics, and investigating fluids and cracks. In addition, he is attempting to map that out onto a simulation so we can investigate how cracks are formed at the molecular level, dealing with Silica and rock. He is a 7th year Physics Ph.D and has been teaching an undergraduate physics lab for many years along. With that, I undertook the pre-grad mentorship with him to see how graduate school life was like. We first started out with the Monte Carlo simulation, to help explain his research to me because it seemed dense, but afterward, we compiled a code for it and found the integral of where an atom would be at from certain parameters and then applied Monte Carlo simulation to other real world topics. With that in mind, I also contributed to his research by discovering the history of molecular dynamics and getting a background of it so he could include it in his research. Afterward, we devised personal statement after statement to gauge what graduate schools are looking for and then aided him in his laboratory class by sitting in, helping people out, writing course material such as quizzes, participating in group TA meetings, and attended a Quantum 2 class at the graduate level.

We began with Python because Python helps me understand how his research works because it gives me the barebones basics of what Molecular Dynamics entailed, and we coded many projects so I can get an exact estimate of where a particle or an atom would be at if I were to put it exclusively in a box defined as an x^x function and then gave it parameters. We worked on this for quite a bit, and I enjoyed it because coding was fun and part of his research included coding. At this moment, I did feel like I was undertaking a graduate project, and got a lot of experience with coding along with how to solve real world problems, and apply them to everyday life. With that in mind, I also conducted multiple literature reviews of the molecular dynamics simulation history as it related to his research, as he felt like it would be important to know where this idea of molecular dynamics comes from. The research was intense, because most of the information went over my head, as an undergraduate, but it gave me a feel for what to expect when I enter graduate school and helped me understand at what level I have to be reading at. As I have done these assignments, I started to get mainly a feel for how to conduct research. I had to learn how to cite, and how to delve into the topic, and summarize a complex topic in a couple of pages that would be useful to the reader, and it was astonishing how difficult it was. The best part was that I always had my mentor backing me, and making sure that I was progressing. In a sense, I felt more of an asset to the school as a whole, because I was trying to break ground in such a topic that I had no background in. Without a background, research was difficult, but I enjoyed the difficulty because it trained me to think critically and read critically; discerning and only picking out the important concepts.

Afterward, I shadowed my mentor, going to class meetings, and writing quizzes along with helping out with course material, and honestly found that experience worthwhile. Despite my mentor having an 8AM laboratory, It was worth it because I saw how he taught and felt like he was connecting with students on a deeper level and getting them to appreciate Physics in such a way that they enjoyed the laboratories. I got a lot out of going to his TA meetings, where he would discuss what they would do with regards to the laboratories, and things they should be aware of. I found those meetings very important and useful because it gives me an idea of how laboratories are conducted at the undergraduate level, along with help me get an idea of what meetings with other graduate students entailed. I was astonished by how thoughtful they were to come up with improvements for their laboratories and how to make it better for other people. I was also happy to contribute my own thoughts on the lab manual, such as including more instructions on what to expect when doing an oral quiz, and how to have a better lab experience. With that in mind, I also attended a Quantum 2 class.

I found the experience very enlightening because even though the material went over my head, I could tell that the professor really cared about the class material and wanted the students to learn. What I witnessed was that the professor asked me to solve a Quantum problem I did not know, but my mentor helped me because he knew my Physics knowledge only went as far as a dynamics class. While many undergraduate classes have classes that range from 20 students to over 500, I really appreciated the fact that graduate studies classes typically have much lower enrollment, because many people don’t enter graduate school. I felt like the lecture was much more of a seminar where the professor is teaching and making sure everyone understands, as opposed to a 500 person classroom. Although it felt like my mentor did not have much support when he was in the program, he always had someone to turn to when he needed help, such as his advisor. That was exactly how I felt; when I needed help, assistance, or guidance about graduate life, I was really happy I had my mentor to turn to.

Near the end, we started to look for schools that I could apply to, and recommended that I find one that is doing research in what I want to do because it helps me narrow my field of study and what I want to do with my life. I am looking to apply for graduate schools that have departments focused on science communication, science portrayal, and environmental portrayals in the media. While there were numerous times my mentor did not know exactly what I wanted, he always aided me in my endeavors and I cannot deny that I have done much soul searching throughout my time. My biggest revelation, after finishing up this experience was that graduate school was not a “glass ceiling” that I would never be able to reach because of my economic and socioeconomic upbringing, but it was a possibility. The reason I say this is because I came in with a fixed mindset that only people who go to graduate schools are those who want to spend all their life working in a research laboratory and publishing articles that only 1 other person will ever read, rather graduate school is a forum for people who want to make a contribution, or positive change in our world. It doesn't matter what the research is in, because whether you are in a laboratory finding ways to treat cancer, or you're looking at ways to try and get people to buy a product, or analyzing methods of communications or making education more accessible to underprivileged backgrounds, you're making a difference in the world.

With that in mind, I wholeheartedly enjoyed this mentorship experience. While I was undertaking this experience, I felt many times that I just wasn’t someone following another person around and taking notes; I truly felt like I was a graduate student, from attending meetings held by the TA’s after every laboratory, to shadowing him on his Quantum 2 class, to making quizzes and tests, to undertaking complex projects that explain the phenomena we live in, and couldn’t be more thankful for this experience. If it weren’t for this experience, I would not have considered graduate school because of the fixed mindset I mentioned earlier, but after this experience, I have much more of a growth mindset where I could see graduate school as a possibility rather than a reality barricaded by a glass ceiling. I will always be grateful for having a mentor who was able to help guide me through this complex maze of whether to consider graduate school or not, and be grateful that I was able to take this experience. Because of this experience, I am much more likely to go to graduate school as a result. I truly enjoyed this experience!