Grad student groups boost university labs, science careers


Margarita Milton

Over the last decade, the amount of graduate students going into non-academic professions has increased significantly. These jobs, such as consulting, science policy, and science writing, generally require a well-rounded résumé with activities besides scholarly publications. Joining a student organization can make one stand out to employers. I have been the chair and co-chair of two graduate student groups. When students have the passion and time to properly run such groups, they can be an asset to university lab management and people’s career trajectories. Here is a description of the groups in which I have been involved.

The Columbia Chemistry Careers Committee (C4)

The goal of C4 is to increase graduate students’ and postdocs’ awareness of career choices by inviting speakers to give presentations about their jobs. I have been chair and treasurer since 2016. Attendance at C4 events is usually 20-40 people (considered high in this department) because everybody wants to get a job and C4 provides a useful service where people talk about how they found jobs.

Finding speakers can sometimes be difficult. Alumni are easiest to reach because professors will have contact info for former students. Alumni also have backgrounds most similar to the audience and they often want to come back to their old university, to see old friends and old haunts.  The event has to be scheduled on a day when there are no competing events, if possible. Mondays and Wednesdays are best for C4 talks because my university has symposia on the other days.

I usually order dinner to go with the talks, which can sometimes be irritating. I learned the hard way that it is best to schedule the delivery 45 minutes in advance (they’re always late) and have it delivered to an easily recognizable landmark instead of the event room. The Chemistry Department is located on the campus level, which is on an island four floors above the street. Most delivery guys cannot find it. I once organized a talk by a chemist-turned-patent attorney for 6 p.m. The food should have been there at 5:30. At 6:05, when the speaker was already there, the delivery guy called and said he was lost. Another C4 member helped find him, but the talk was interrupted. For future events I had food delivered to a building on a corner and carried it up.

Other things to keep in mind when inviting speakers is travel. All the people I have invited work in the greater New York City area and do not need to be reimbursed for travel. Another thing is presentation format—a computer has to be ready for the speaker if he or she has slides on a flash drive.

C4 is open for anybody who wants to join and invite speakers. It is the most well-known group in the Chemistry Department and we helped students make informed career decisions. During the two-week intro course for new grad students in August, we have an ice cream social to recruit new members and teach new students about our organization. I think this year it may become a Cookie or Candy Social, because our cooler was taken to a new lab space and is being used to store dry ice for the rotovap.

The Columbia Environment and Energy Network (CLEEN)

CLEEN was founded in 2014 by a group of postdocs and grad students (including me) who wanted to improve energy efficiency in wet lab research. We had many goals and project ideas. We first split off into sub-groups. I was in charge of the fume hood project. We wanted to find out if fume hoods could be regulated to pull less air when not in use. After meeting with someone from Facilities, it became clear that we should not even dream of tampering with fume hoods, which are integral for air safety in labs.

I transferred to the Recycling Team where I created a page on our website with information about recycling in New York State. Wet labs are often poorly equipped for recycling. There need to be three cans: trash, paper, and metal/plastic, and labs usually only have trash. I was successful in getting new garbage cans for my lab because I put in a request. It turns out they cost $60 each and the lids are separate. Many PIs are hesitant to waste money on a can for waste. We had a meeting with Facilities about this and said it is an impediment to recycling. They said they are working on it. In any case, any garbage bin can be outfitted as a recycling bin by slapping a sign on it. I spread the word about how there are many disposable lab objects that can be recycled. Aluminum cans from reagent bottles, boxes from test tubes, plastic boxes from pipette tips, clean petri dishes…these can all go in the metal/plastics can.

Another CLEEN project was with the Sticker Team that posted stickers with suggestions about energy efficiency all over the department. The stickers suggested taking the stairs instead of the elevator, turning off the light, and using less paper towels. Unfortunately, an unseen enemy started taking the stickers down. This person never identified him or herself, and was sometimes really quick. A sticker would go up one morning and be down in the evening. The Sticker Team even wrote “Endorsed by the Chemistry Department” at the bottom of the stickers but somebody still tore them down. Short of hiding cameras and spying, the Sticker Team did not know what to do and abandoned the effort.

Probably the most impressive CLEEN project was the Ultra-Low Temperature (ULT) freezer initiative. We created a grant proposal so that we could get money to buy an extra ULT freezer. ULT freezers need to be defrosted every now and then because so much ice sometimes builds up that the door won’t close and the freezer uses up a lot more energy to stay cold. Lab workers are reluctant to defrost because it means taking out the DNA kits, proteins, and other lab research products and putting them in another freezer (that probably also needs defrosting) or a less cold freezer. There is risk of decomposition. The grant for $10,000, which we did receive, was for an extra ULT freezer that could be wheeled around to store the stuff during defrosting.

I have already mentioned that passion and time are necessary for a successful student group. During fall 2016, the former chair of CLEEN graduated. I hadn’t noticed that most of the members were from his lab. When they all dropped out, I realized they had only been in CLEEN to support the former chair. Nevertheless, I took over with a co-chair. We decided to make CLEEN more of an informational-style instead of proactive group. We had an event where we invited people from Environmental Stewardship and Facilities to discuss how the university is improving recycling and sustainability. That event was well-attended, but the movie nights were a bust despite the food we provided. Students are not too interested in fun events during the workweek. Since then, CLEEN has been put on ice while we decide on its future directions.

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Margarita Milton grew up in New York City. She received her BS in Chemistry from Stony Brook University after working on the synthesis of aromatic belts in the lab of Nancy Goroff. She is currently a graduate student in the Nuckolls Lab at Columbia University, where she creates novel architectures involving perylene diimides. In her spare time, Margarita likes to read and write.

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