Chemistry, PhD and then what?, RosAnsia

But what did I do during my PhD?

So far, I’ve been talking a lot about why I decided to do a PhD, the issues I’ve encountered and what’s my job now that I’ve left academia. But I’ve not really mentioned my actual research.

Thinking back to my PhD, it’s almost like the research I’ve carried out sits in the background of my personal growth. On the contrary, it was one of the main actors, forcing me to step up my game, leave my comfort zone and learn something new every day.

Wearing safety goggles in the lab

So, what did I do? I did some very hardcore physical chemistry that involved a mass spectrometer, a laser and molecules in the gas phase. And plenty of computational stuff.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was physical chemistry for me during my bachelor degree. I spent around four months preparing for the physical chemistry 2 final. I made peace with it during my master, but now I think that choosing it as a PhD project was a way of challenging myself. Also, I did not like synthesis. At all.

During my 4 years of PhD, I studied molecular photochemistry and potential energy surfaces with a laser in the UV-visible range. We looked at how these molecules interacted with light (and loosely bound electrons), gaining key information on their intrinsic nature.

The optic table, where the laser would be directed to the mass spectrometer (two windows at the bottom). Click here to see it with the laser on.

That’s how deep we went. And it took me quite a while to grasp the physical chemistry behind it.
At the same time, I had to grasp the technical aspects of running (and aligning!) a level 4 pulsed laser without burning my eyes and running a mass spectrometry experiment. I had a very supportive group that helped me every step of the way.

Luckily, I was also working part-time at the mass spectrometry service of the chemistry department (one day per week). There I was learning – from the best boss I could desire – more about the technique every day.

Me working at the mass spec service in the chemistry department. Credits: Baluga Photography

During my third year, I decided to spend some time “abroad”, travelling to the US for a conference and an experiment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I applied for some travel funding, and I found out I won only 25 days before leaving. That was a real organizational mess, but everything went smoothly besides a weekend in a very scary Airbnb in Chinatown, Chicago.

The experiment in Madison was similar to ours. However, they had an infrared laser, that gave us a new piece to add to the puzzle (and resulted in a beautiful publication). Also, I instantly fell in love with UW-Madison and the sunsets on the campus lake.

Back to the UK, as a final step a few months before leaving, I coupled our experiment with a photolysis cell sat on top of the mass spectrometer. This allowed us to compare our gas-phase results with the liquid phase.

The photolysis cell we built, sitting on top of the mass spectrometer

These experiments led to a number of published papers that were included in my thesis (some of them have been published after I handed it in), a book of around 300 pages, with 7 chapters and 4 pages of acknowledgements (I had many people to thank!).

If I have to summarize my experience with the technical stuff, I can honestly say that I loved it and I hated it. It was a continuous challenge, and sometimes it was painful. Failure was part of it and it was difficult to accept.

It made me realize how wrong the idea of the brilliant scientist working alone in its lab is, and it taught me to be kind to myself and accept all of my difficulties.

Lastly, it showed me my potential and made me believe in everyone else’s.

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