Niva Ran obtained her PhD. degree in Materials Chemistry from the Nguyen group at UCSB on December 2016. She has been working in the Nguyen group for the past few months to mentor new students, guide new projects with her expertise, and complete some of her final projects, before venturing onto her next endeavor. As an active member of GSDS, she has taken up roles as speaker series director (2013-2015) and president (2015-2016) in the past. Now that her time at UCSB comes to an end, it is perhaps the most opportune time for us to ask her about her PhD. years: the highs, the lows, and everything in-between.
Looking back to your time in grad school, what is something you wish you could tell yourself when you started?
One of the biggest things I wish I had known when I was starting was that, it’s okay not to know things. We are all here to learn; some people are going to have more background knowledge coming in than others, and other people might be faster learners than you. But no matter what—it’s okay not to know, even things that you feel you should know. The learning process is much easier once you are okay with yourself for not knowing things. Once you start feeling like you deserve to be here, and that you aren’t a fraud—things that people describe as the imposter syndrome—learning becomes much easier.
What would you say were your toughest and easiest years? Why?
My toughest years were definitely the first couple of years. I went through a big growth spurt in graduate school. I think I came in really as a child, with various ideas about what graduate school is supposed to be like, what your advisor is supposed to be like, how your project is supposed to develop. Lots of “supposed to”s. Finding contradictions between my ideas and reality made adapting in the first few years really hard for me. At the beginning stages, it was also a matter of learning things I didn’t know, quickly. I had jumped into a whole new field that I knew nothing about.
In some ways, in my first few years, I was also doing everything alone. There were two people in particular who were instrumental in my development and I am immensely grateful to them: they saw that I was struggling, they cared, and gave me the push and pull I needed. But I feel that at first, I did a fair amount of floundering and splashing on my own which I think wasn’t very effective and wasted a lot of time. That’s the reason I have been putting a lot of effort in trying to guide the people who are just starting now. I want to make sure they are not thrown in the water to see if they can swim, but instead that they learn how to swim little by little in the beginning stages. Of course, this has to be balanced with letting them swim on their own.
The last 2-3 years were the most fun years because that’s when I really started to understand what was happening and started to make connections—not just in my project but also in other people’s projects. I could finally work quickly and effectively, I could understand talks, I could think steps ahead of what was being said, and I could even make suggestions on how to improve other people’s work—it has been a really gratifying time. During this time I got involved in projects that were broadly collaborative and I was juggling various responsibilities in the group. I felt like I was doing things correctly, that things were moving smoothly. I wish all the five years of my PhD. were like my last two years, but I suppose that’s the point of a PhD.
Do you think it helps to participate and speak up if you are around more?
I think being around and getting accustomed to your group is important, but the environment in the group is what really matters. Having a culture in the group where you are comfortable asking questions and you feel that it is okay not to know things is extremely fruitful. If older graduate students who seemingly know everything also engage in this kind of discussion and admit that they don’t know things, it encourages younger students to speak-up and admit when they don’t know things.
What is your one advice to people who are just starting out or are at the beginning stages of their PhD. career?
You have to jump all in. You have to try things and you have to learn. It’s important to work really hard in grad school, especially in the first few years. But this doesn’t meant just collect a lot of data. There has to be a balance between learning and collecting data. Just collecting data without understanding is not good; if you just end up with a mountain of data, without knowing what it all means, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything with it. As you are collecting data, trying to learn everything you can about it, but also doing it in small steps is important. If you keep moving forward and learning, no matter how small the steps, the growth eventually becomes exponential.
Along the same lines, when I was in my second or third year of grad school, I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You/ by Cal Newport. This book had a big impact on how I saw my career, and I have been recommending it to everyone who is starting out in their career. The main message I took from the book is that we are not born with a passion for a particular field/career—the passion develops as you become better at what you do. So the most important thing is to learn as much as you can, and as deeply as you can. I think if you do that you’ll have a great time in grad school and you will be successful. And if I am thinking about success, I also feel strongly about the importance of working together with other people, and even more importantly—giving credit and speaking up about the virtues of the people we work with. A vast majority of advancements in sciences do not happen in vacuum: they are the result of collaborative work, at the very least inspired by other people. It can be easy to overlook the contribution of other people; and I feel like in science there is even a drive sometimes to emphasize on what “I” did. But we should be very conscientious, appreciative, and generous with giving credit and praising our collaborators and co-workers.
What do you like to do when you are not working at lab? How do you find balance?
One of things I was pretty strong minded about when I joined UCSB—and this might not be true for everyone—was choosing not to live in San Clemente because I wanted to detach from work when I’m not in the lab. I have really liked living downtown as opposed to living close to campus.
Doing something on a regular basis is really good. In the last year, I have been going rock climbing regularly with a good friend of mine. It started out with going once a week, but now we go almost three times a week. It helps to be doing something like this with a friend, but nonetheless, doing something else besides work on a consistent schedule is a nice way to detach from school work. Before rock climbing, I danced a lot of salsa at events called: Yes You Can Dance Salsa, and also did a little bit of swing dancing.
If you are able to go on weekend trips to national parks around here, that is also an awesome get-away. Some of the parks here are so spectacular. I did a few trips, but I don’t think I did enough of them.
Why did you join GSDS?
To be honest, inertia at first: people who I knew were going to GSDS meetings and events, so I also went. I thought it was really cool that we got to invite faculty members and visiting scholars from everywhere and engage in discussions with them over meals or individual meetings. I didn’t really know what to talk about with the invited speakers at first, but I guess that was part of the learning process. Also, even though I wasn’t so involved at first, the outreach events that GSDS puts together are really impressive. Then, at one of the meetings where we were deciding on the roles for the following year, someone I knew nudged me to volunteer for the Speaker Series Director—and I did!
In addition to the events we put together, GSDS opens you up to a whole other group of people that you wouldn’t necessarily interact with otherwise. It’s so easy to be only surrounded by your research group, especially in a group like ours where we also have a social aspect to the group. It’s nice to get to know graduate students from different departments.
But the most important aspect is the emphasis in GSDS to create an inclusive community where everyone is welcome. It’s really nice to have a forum that encourages you to stay in science, even if you are different from everyone immediately around you and you feel like you don’t really fit in.
What are you doing now? And where will you be after this?
Right now I am still working at the Quyen lab. There are a few things that I wanted to finish and head-start before I left. There are a few places where I saw that I can fuel up some projects and make them go faster, or take out some of the roadblocks or challenges. I am trying to make sure that when I leave, people that I am working with know where they are going next, and are happy and prepared. I don’t want to leave vacuums behind.
Next, I am going to Iceland with my dad for a week, and then a few friends will join me when my dad leaves, so I will be there for two weeks in total. I’m super excited.
And after that, I will be starting an engineering position at Apple. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would end up working with Apple after grad school.
What will you miss the most about UCSB, your research group, and Santa Barbara?
UCSB: This will sound super clichéd, but I will miss the people. Sometimes I think I will feel nostalgic about academia, especially now that I understand how to do these thing finally. I can finally write a paper quickly. I can finally come up with research ideas and stories to tell, think of the right experiments to do—which were things I struggled with in the beginning. I have learned so much about organic electronics that I have all kinds of ideas and questions now. It’s a bit of a shame that when I have finally learned these things, I am leaving.
Research Group: One of things that I appreciate about the way Quyen runs her group is that she puts a lot of thought and emphasis on choosing people that will fit into the group. The results of this careful process are great, I really like so many of our group members. I will miss working in a group that is so caring, friendly, and fun. I feel that the people in the group matter a lot. It’s a fantastic experience to get to work with people who are not only concerned about their own personal success and ego, but are rather courteous and want to help you learn and help projects move forward. Those kinds of relationships in the group are what make working in the group so pleasant.
Santa Barbara: I am moving to the bay area, where there is going to be a lot of traffic. I have been been taking the bus to school for the last 3 years, 4,..wait, how many years has it been? I don’t want to deal with having to drive and all that traffic. I never thought I would say this, but I’ll miss the “reasonable” rent prices here?
Santa Barbara is an exceptionally gorgeous area. I like how small Santa Barbara is, so you can walk or bike to places. I really don’t want to drive. Again, it’s probably super clichéd to say that you will miss the mountains and the ocean, but they really are what make Santa Barbara so beautiful. I will miss how beautiful it is. You can just walk out for 10 minutes and you will be on the beach, where there are these phenomenal sunsets that are so breathtaking. Everyone should go out to campus point around 5 PM in the winter to experience these sunsets.