Name: Thomas Cheshire, PhD.
Occupation: Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
About me: There is no short story about me, and my path to my current position as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) is not straightforward. I have learned there is no “right” path in life, and finding our way is what defines and distinguishes us.
First, I should tell you that I am an albino—terrible eyesight, highly sensitive to light, and no melanin in my skin—born in Honolulu, Hawaii and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Having poor vision has been a challenge throughout my life, not the least of which in the classroom when I could not see what the teacher was writing on the chalkboard. Though I was never reluctant to ask for help if I needed it—being self-sufficient and independent has always been very important to me—from early age on I often found myself doing extra reading through my textbooks to be sure I was keeping up with the class.
My first taste of higher education was at Virginia Tech. Against my family’s advice, I earned degrees in political science and philosophy rather than following in my father’s footsteps into computer science. I wholeheartedly embraced the deeper questions in my classes, and loved to discuss metaphysics, logic, and epistemology for hours with my friends. Following graduation, I continued to be curious, but decided to shift gears. I began to work my way through restaurant kitchens in New York and San Francisco, climbing my way up the culinary ladder. It should not be a surprise that I made up for my impaired vision in the kitchen by learning to cook using my other senses, but also by leveraging my sense of curiosity. Though I technically left my philosophy studies behind, I continued to ask questions constantly—pressing chefs to tell me everything they knew—and pushed myself to learn the science behind cooking.
After more than a decade of fumbling for an amateurish understanding of “molecular gastronomy”, a coworker convinced me that we should enroll in Brooklyn College to study chemistry. It did not take long for me to realize that I loved not only chemistry, but physics and mathematics as well. In fact, by the time I was studying physical chemistry and quantum mechanics, I had begun to think that it was no longer the deep questions in food science I was interested in, but rather the deep questions of our physical world, reminding me of the curiosity I had studying philosophy.
As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I studied theory in an ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy lab. My advisor, Dr. Andy Moran, encouraged me to spend a lot of time in the laser-lab, to understand the experiments the group designed by walking around the laser-table, and to consider the ways measurements can and cannot be controlled. I learned to “walk around” problems to discover new solutions. In parallel to modeling new spectroscopic techniques the group was developing, I began to apply analogues of those models to relaxation dynamics.
About My Work: At LBL, I am part of a Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program lead by Dr. Frances Houle and centered on the study of solar harvesting devices such as dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC) and dye-sensitized photoelectrosynthesis cells (DSPEC). My contribution has been to investigate and develop a comprehensive model for the ultrafast photophysics of the molecules used in DSSC and DSPEC devices. I apply my knowledge of spectroscopy (light-matter interactions) and nonlinear dynamics (molecular transitions not involving the absorption nor emission of a photon) to extend traditional chemical kinetics to simulate complicated experimental data of molecules used in solar energy conversion. What does all of this mean? I hope to help make using our sun’s energy as efficient and affordable as possible by “walking around” the problem.
As part of my work at the Lab, I lead a team of researchers from multiple institutions around the country to compile data from several studies for meta-analysis, to perform electronic structure calculations, and to simulate time-resolved spectroscopic signals. Together, we are able to build on each other’s expertise to identify gaps in our knowledge and ways in which to fill them. I am fortunate to work with seasoned spectroscopists, physical chemists, inorganic chemists, materials scientists, and computational chemists, each providing perspective I would surely not have on my own. Our meetings often resolve one question, only to uncover ten new questions, but this I have learned is the nature of conducting research.
Advice About Entering the Field: For those that absolutely love learning, unlearning, relearning, and repeat, research and academia are the perfect thorny rose; but research and academia are NOT for everyone. Academia should not be entered into lightly. The life of an academic entails constantly being under scrutiny and learning to live with rejection, and sometimes failure. Whether it is referees reviewing a submitted publication or grant, the broader community evaluating your conclusions, or society as a whole deciding the value of your field, it is taxing to endure unceasing judgement of your work. Equally frustrating, as researchers we can and do fail, often. While it is never easy to admit we are wrong, or see a project fall apart, it is important as researchers to remember that in science failure is inevitable. The best we can do is to learn from our mistakes and move on to the next project. Regardless of constantly being under the microscope, I am delighted that I get to spend my time diving into the deep end of molecular interactions. I have an endless supply of puzzles and can work with colleagues across multiple disciplines. My favorite part of being an academic is the interaction with students, mentees, and attendees at talks. Despite often feeling anxious, more than anything else, I enjoy sharing what I have learned. Teaching, advising, and giving talks allows me to give back to the community that has helped transition me from a philosopher, to a restaurant worker, to a researcher at a national lab.