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NAME

Lindsay Kuhn

JOB TITLE

PhD student in materials science

LOCATION

Providence, Rhode Island

SALARY

$20,000 - $40,000

NUMBER OF YEARS IN THE FIELD

7 years

COMPANY

Brown University

Education

Barnard College, Columbia University, 1998-2003
BA, English, with a concentration in creative writing

Columbia University, SEAS, 1998-2003
BS, Mechanical Engineering

5-year joint degree program between Barnard College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University

Brown University, 2010-2017
PhD, Materials Science

Career Bio

The profession

Materials science is a relatively new field, encompassing engineering, chemistry, biology, math, and physics. It is the study and optimization of materials at their atomic level, for a specific application. I investigate the electrical properties of NaKNbO3 (NKN), or sodium potassium niobate. I was originally interested in the field because a lot of sustainable energy research happens under the umbrella of materials science.

How I got here

It's hard to know where to start! I majored in English and mechanical engineering in college as part of a joint degree program. I chose English because I've always loved reading (read more, read more, read more, I tell myself all the time) and writing and I majored in mechanical engineering because I liked science and math and thought it was good inventor training. My dad, an obstetrician gynecologist and occasional biology teacher, nurtured my love for science from a young age. He taught biology at a local university in Florida and often took me to class with him. And when I was 15 years old he took me to a delivery. I remember this day a lot better than other days, us bypassing the elevator and running up the stairwell of the hospital because the woman, not yet a mother, was so many centimeters along. I stood in the back of a small delivery room--my dad, a nurse, the woman in labor and the father of the baby were the only other people in the room-- and watched two people transform into parents in what seemed like a split second. The new father handed me the camera to take pictures of the delivery and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever photographed.

In 2003 I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles for creative pursuits. I wrote for some local papers--The Malibu Times, E!Online, etc.--,waitressed, babysat, acted in small play, interned at a production company, and ushered at the LA Opera, among other things. After ushering for Die Frau Ohne Schotten--a German opera that makes three hours feel like ten hours--for the fifth time, I decided it was time to look for an engineering job. Engineering companies consider you a college hire if you are within a year and a half of graduation so it's important to get a job within this window. I applied to a handful of positions online and in a huge stroke of luck got a job at The Boeing Company in a two-year engineering rotation program.

I loved the next few years. In this position I moved to a different department every three months. The good thing about a rotation program is you get to see so much but on the other hand, you don't always get interesting work or become an expert at anything. Most of the positions were related to the C-17 Globemaster III, a military cargo plane that very recently went out of production. I worked in C-17 Hydromechanical, C-17 Electrical Engineering, C-17 Business Development, C-17 Production, Advanced Design, the weapons system for the B-1B bomber--I chose this rotation mostly for voyeuristic reasons--, as a Liaison Engineer at an Air Force base in Charleston, South Carolina, and eventually got a job as an engineer in the Thermophysics group in the Satellite Development Division for three years, where I worked on the thermal design for satellites, including GPS and DirectTV satellites.

After working at Boeing for six years I decided to go back to school for a PhD in materials science to learn more about how the world works.

A typical day

Today I woke-up, had coffee (a must) and breakfast, and checked my email before heading to the office. My office is a shared space and more of an office/lab hybrid. There is a smaller adjoining room with electrical measurement systems including an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). I use it to check for terraces, or ridges, a single atomic unit in height on a strontium titanate substrate. A few weeks ago I collected a lot of data and now need to analyze the data, which involves plotting it in OriginPro, a plotting software, and fitting it to existing models. I have been sorting through this data for two weeks already. I got to the lab around 9:30am, plotted the data until 11:45am, went home to have lunch, then headed back to the lab to plot data until my eyes needed to rest from the screen. Tomorrow I will basically do the same thing. And at 1:30pm I have a weekly meeting with my advisor to show him my results.

If my day sounded tedious, it was. In the course of the day I created 100 workbooks and about the same number of plots. The software crashed a few times and wore on my patience. But the thing is, you can't get to the good part, when you look for trends in the data and figure-out the underlying physics, without this part. And sometimes I get to spend the whole day reading, either articles or textbooks; I love these days. It's important to recognize there's an element of tedium to every job.

The hardest parts

As a woman you have to fight micro-battles on a daily basis. There are people who will make you feel like you're not good enough. There are people who will tell you, "someone in your position would just leave with a master's degree." There are people who will tell you, "you can't have an accident in the lab, you're not married yet." There are people who will treat you like you don't know how to use a screw driver.

Science can be very isolating; sometimes I sit alone in a basement for 12 hours at a time running experiments.

Failing repeatedly is a fundamental underpinning of science; for every one piece of good data there are tens and maybe hundreds of failed attempts at getting that data.

The best parts

I get to look at the world in nanometers (1x10^-9 meters)!

Every now and then an experiment goes well, you figure-out something you always wondered about, you suddenly see things from a new perspective, or you feel, just possibly, you could make a difference.

The workplace

Out of the lab I am a bit of a clotheshorse but in the lab the dress code is more about being practical than anything else. I wear comfortable and closed toed shoes, sleeves that don't get caught on anything, etc. Occasionally I work with liquid nitrogen and need a sweater or jacket because the room gets cold. But if I wore the same thing every single day I don't think anyone would notice.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Learn Chinese. Learn Japanese. And then learn Korean. I'm only kidding but the majority of students in the engineering school are Asian.

Don't take off too much time before starting graduate work, especially in the sciences. I took off seven years and it made things hard--by the time I came back to school I had forgotten a lot of basic math and science, and was a little older than the average student and inherently an outlier, or it always felt that way anyways. But if you have to choose between taking off time before starting graduate school and not going to graduate school at all, go to graduate school.

Work with others, especially in classes--there's so much to learn from them.

Advice to my younger self

Time is your most valuable resource. Focus on a few things and do them well rather than doing a lot of things just okay, say no, make decisions because your heart tells you so not because you fear mediocrity, and stay away from fake sugar.