Venturing Into My Comfort Zone

When research and travel go hand in hand
MAR 2019
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Travelling is one of my favorite things to do, so I'm always excited when I get to travel for work. Since I’m a Ph.D. student in atmospheric chemistry in the environmental engineering department, you might think that my work naturally lends itself to performing research in the field. However, I do most of my work here at MIT either by running experiments in a giant teflon bag to simulate the atmosphere or by working on my computer. As much as I love my lab work, I never hesitate to seize an opportunity to break out of the plastic bag and spread my research across the world.

My first foray into travelling research at MIT was when I TA’ed for the TREX (Travelling Research Environmental eXperience) class on the big island of Hawaii over IAP in 2018. For those of you who currently live somewhere beautiful where winter isn’t soul-crushingly frigid, let me tell you: escaping Boston for a few weeks in January to go to Hawaii is not an opportunity that you should ever reject. The other instructors and I flew in with a small group of undergrads in part to study volcanic emissions, which cause air quality problems for the local population. We departed from Boston at 6am, but not even intense sleep deprivation could temper my excitement for the entire 14-hour flight.

My job as a TA was to advise undergrads who were beginning to decide what research questions they would like to answer. Teaching is probably my greatest academic passion, and I’d like to become a professor in the future, so this was an incredible trial run for me to test and refine my abilities as a mentor and an educator. In the end, we decided to drive all around the island, deploying home-built air quality sensors at regular intervals along the way. We also attached sensors to the roof of our minivan to attempt to track the volcanic gas plume as we drove. As you can see from the image below, I made sure that the students had zip tied the sensors to death so there was no chance they could fall off the roof. The research timeframe was tight, but I was proud of all the work the students had accomplished!

Many zip ties were sacrificed in the name of sensor road safety.

It would have been a shame to travel 5,000 miles to Hawaii and only perform research, so we made sure to take advantage of the warm weather and beautiful scenery as much as possible. We spent almost a week in A-frame cabins just a few hundred yards from the beach, took multiple trips to the black lava rock cliffs at South Point, gazed into the eerie red glow emanating from the lava pool in Kilauea, and even ventured above the clouds to the nearly 14,000 ft. frigid summit of Mauna Kea to visit an astronomical observatory and watch the sunset.

I feel like I’ve been spoiled by my PI because last summer I took another trip for work, this time to Paris, to learn and start using a computational chemistry program that has since become an integral part of my research. I’m half-French, so going to France was the icing on the cake for me. I developed a great relationship with our research collaborators in France who made my labmate and me feel right at home, and I’m excited about their upcoming visit to MIT in a few months!

I had been to Paris several times in the past to visit family, but this was the first time I had ever had a chance to explore the city on my own. Some people think travelling by yourself is lonely, but honestly I found it liberating. I spent my days working with one of my MIT labmates  and our French collaborators, but I was free to spend my evenings however I wanted! One night I went to the Musee d’Orsay to see some of my favorite impressionist paintings - another night I went into the center of the city to watch France beat Belgium in the World Cup while packed in like sardines with thousands of other fans. Work and play go hand in hand for me, and I think I found the perfect balance in Paris. Overall, this trip was immensely fulfilling on both a personal and professional level.

Even if you think your research doesn’t lend itself to field work or travel, you never know what opportunities might arise. Your research might need to be performed in a clean room or a lab with serious biohazard protocols, but you will still almost certainly travel to present your research at conferences and symposia. In any case, my advice to you is this: if you have the chance to travel for anything related to your research and work at MIT, don’t hesitate to seize that opportunity.