While visiting prospective graduate
programs, I found just the project I
was looking for: creating a radically
new type of solar cell using low-cost
electrochemistry techniques. The
chemistry my new project would
require was fundamentally different from the methods I had learned
while working on magnetic materials, and I hadn’t really thought
about chemistry since taking Chem
101 as a college freshman. But I was
so driven by the potential social
impact of the work that these realities did not worry me.
In my first week, it was clear
that I was starting from scratch.
Mixing my first solution, I dumped
powdered copper sulfate into a
dry beaker before adding water—a
big no-no, as any chemist knows.
The extreme heat given off nearly
caused the beaker to explode. But I quickly learned the
correct procedures and threw myself into my research.
However, 2 years of intense work did not lead to much
progress. I found myself in the lab less, and my patience
for troubleshooting experiments waned. I began to doubt my
project and even my ability to graduate. To my adviser, the
unexpected failure of the technique I was using offered a
chance to dig deeper into the underlying chemistry. He was
excited about what he saw as a silver lining, which made my
enthusiasm sink even further. I didn’t want to study electrochemistry techniques; I wanted to solve climate change.
In hindsight, the source of my dissatisfaction was clear.
In choosing my research area, I had been blinded by my en-
thusiasm to tackle a pressing social and environmental prob-
lem. I hadn’t critically considered my own scientific interests
and whether I would enjoy working in an electrochemistry
lab. I should have remembered how much I struggled in
Chem 101. And I should have realized that the concepts
and techniques I mastered in my undergraduate research
on magnetic materials—the very things that got me hooked
on research in the first place—
were not particularly relevant
Recognizing I was on the wrong
path, I used the nuclear option:
switching advisers midway through
my Ph.D. While searching for a new
adviser, I asked myself which scientific concepts and experimental
techniques—the things I would
engage with every day—excited me.
Perhaps most important, I came to
see science as an ecosystem of work
ranging from investigating fundamentals to developing devices, all of
which contribute to solving pressing problems. I realized I could
make a meaningful contribution to
combating climate change by working on something I was passionate
about, even if it was less directly
related to a specific technology.
I found a new home in a lab studying graphene, a
material with promising electronic properties. Things
clicked and my work took off immediately. There were still
some bumps along the way, of course, but I found the day-to-day challenges in the lab less daunting because I was
excited by the concepts and techniques I was working with.
Just as I came to see my research as part of a larger scientific ecosystem, today I understand that scientific advancements are just one part of the needed response to climate
change. I’ve reduced my environmental impact by taking
public transportation to work, significantly cutting my meat
intake, and resisting my consumerist impulses. My lifestyle
changes won’t single-handedly reverse climate change, and
neither will my individual scientific contributions. But we
all need to work together to address such challenges, each
of us contributing in the best way we can. ■
Paul C. Rogge is a postdoctoral researcher at Drexel
University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Send your
career story to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.
“I had been blinded by my
enthusiasm to tackle a
pressing … problem.”
My climate change crisis
Reading former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in college awakened me to the widespread threat of climate change. Spurred to action, I joined a lab to develop alter- native energy technologies. The result was an undergraduate project studying magnetic materials, which are important for electric vehicles and wind turbines. It got me hooked on research and left me wanting to make a bigger impact. I wanted my work to lead straight to solutions—but in the process, I veered off course.
By Paul C. Rogge