Aaron Frank, Professor of Biophysics

Aaron Frank


OCCUPATION: University of Michigan Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Biophysics

ABOUT ME: I am originally from Grenada, a small island in the Caribbean. After moving to the US in 2001, I enrolled in the City University of New York and attended classes at the Brooklyn College campus, majoring in Chemistry.  While at Brooklyn College, I worked in the groups of Professors Charlene Forest, Shaneen Singh, and Alexander Greer. These research experiences were the most important component of my undergraduate experience; because of them, I knew for sure that I wanted to attend graduate school. After finishing up my BA in Chemistry in 2006, I then moved to Michigan to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan to study biophysics. Then in 2008, my Ph.D. advisor Professor Ioan Andricioaei, moved to UC Irvine and so I followed him to sunny California. After a few months in California, I vowed never again to live in any place where it is consistently cold. I received my Ph.D. in chemistry in 2011. Somehow forgetting my promise always to stay warm, I returned to Ann Arbor and did a two year stint at Nymirum Inc. — a small biotech company in Ann Arbor founded by a close collaborator. I then returned to the University of Michigan as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow where I was mentored by Professor Charles L. Brooks, III. In 2016, I joined the University of Michigan faculty, and I am now an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in the Chemistry Department and the Biophysics Department.


ABOUT MY WORK:  As a professor, I wear three hats (or a single tri-colored hat): I am a researcher, I am a teacher, and I am (or at least I attempt to be) a mentor to the aspiring young scientists in my research group. As a researcher, I get to, within reason, explore any basic science question that intrigues me, to the extent that I am qualified to make meaningful contributions to that area of research. As a teacher, I get see students discover new concepts and watch as they connect them concepts they already know. As a mentor, I have the privilege to observe the maturation–from novice to expert–of the students and postdocs in my research group.

Being a professor is unique in that the training I received prepared me to solve scientific problems, but not so much of about how to teach and mentor students. Much of the job has been come down to acquiring these skills on-the-fly, and indeed in many professions, just-in-time acquisition of needed skills is the norm.

My research group uses computers to answer questions that arise in structural biology and biophysics. Interestingly, our day-to-day activities mirror closely the day-to-day activities of a data-science group: we try to solve scientific problems by extracting patterns from experimental and simulated data. Therefore, to a casual observer, it may not seem like it, but our work is all about chemistry. The questions that motivate what we do is how the chemical properties of the monomers in biopolymers impact their physical properties. For example, what is the structure of these polymers and what are its dynamical properties (that is, how do they move in time). Most important, we want to know how do these properties give rise to biological function? In my research group, we primarily study a class of biopolymers called ribonucleic acids (RNA); the chemical sequence of RNA dictates its functional properties. For example, there are RNA that respond to changes in temperature or changes in the concentration of molecules and turn off or on genes in response to these changes. The fascinating thing is that changing the chemical identity of just a single monomer in RNA containing more than 100 individual monomers (for example) can obliterate the functional capacity of an RNA. As such, understanding the functioning of these molecules means rationalizing how chemistry at the level of a single monomer (called nucleotides in RNA) affects the properties of the entire polymer.

A typical day starts with breakfast with my son and wife. We then drop my son off at pre-school, and I get into the office around 9:00 pm. Once at the office, I begin my day by responding to unanswered emails from the previous night. I also check my calendar to remind myself about scheduled meeting for that day (and also to make sure I didn’t miss an earlier meeting!). If I lecture on that day, I typically spend 1-2 hours preparing for class. If not, I spend most of my day talking with my team about our research. Most of my interactions with my team center on troubleshooting issues that arise while working on our projects, and coming out with creative ideas to address specific technical and scientific challenges we invariably face. I also spend time serving on thesis committees and administrative committees within the Chemistry and Biophysics departments. My workday officially ends around 5 pm. After putting my son to bed, (around 7:00 pm, if we are lucky), I typically finish up uncompleted tasks from the day. If I don’t have anything specific to do, I usually spend about an hour on YouTube catching up on sports highlights and the latest political news. The toughest part of the day is trying to fall asleep: I get so excited about the research in our lab that I sometimes find it difficult just to sleep. Many of the new ideas I bring to the lab in the morning originates from thoughts I had while attempting to fall asleep!

The most challenging aspect of the jobs is juggling the three different aspects of my job—researcher,  teacher, and mentor—simultaneously. Each on its own can be stress-inducing, combined, even more so. Particularly challenging is dealing with the anxiety associated getting funding. The exercise of coming up with research questions, designing creative solutions to address meaningful problems, and putting together a logical and coherent plan for a set of research projects is a rewarding experience. It is everything that comes after that can be stress-inducing: will the project be funded, did you reviewers hate my idea, will I be able to keep my research team together, what will I do if this idea is not supported, again?

The best thing about my job is the intellectual freedom to explore my ideas or the ideas of my group members. For the most part, we are in complete control of the what we do and how we do it. The questions we attempt to answer and the technical challenges we attempt solve must be well motivated and rooted in filling an existing gap in a particular research area, but given that we can frame the question in such a way that we can use your talents to address it then it is all fair game. For me, it is really like being a kid in a candy store.




  1. For someone interested in working in my area I would say learn as much physics, mathematics, and computer science as is possible, and sprinkle in a bit of biochemistry and molecular biology.
  2. Specific technical skills that will enable someone to make an impact write away is: (1) Being comfortable working on the command line in a Unix-like environment. Without any formal coding experience, if some can use the computer from the command line, they can be productive in my line of research. (2) Similarly, learning basics scripting is important, this we allow one to automate tasks for setting up calculations and analyzing the output.
  3. One has to be passionate about answering questions through the design logical experiments (in our case, virtual experiments). One must also be willing to thoroughly investigate all possible explanations. You have to be excited by the details: how and why, exactly? One must also be independent-minded and intellectually courageous. That is, one must be willing to come with and try out new and well-reasoned ideas, on their own. With these qualities, you also have to have an analytical mind and a willingness and ability to acquire the technical skills needed to get the job done. Almost in every project we work on, we employ computational tools and techniques that are new to us.
  4. If you (absolutely) dislike searching for patterns in data and find it hard using computers, then this line of research is not for you. I say this cautiously though; we have many different kinds of people in our group all with their unique background and interests, and so there is not a single type.

Yousra Abdelhadi, Chemistry Teacher

FULL NAME:  Yousra Abdelhadi


OCCUPATION:  Former Chemist at Virginia Dare Flavor House and AVON Cosmetics, currently chemistry teacher and AP Curriculum Writer

ABOUT ME:  I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I went to James Madison High School and was lucky to be a student and employee at Brooklyn College.

My journey towards becoming a chemistry teacher took me through several different experiences all of which complement what I do now. At Brooklyn College, as a member of RISE  I had the privilege of working at AREAC as a research assistant my sophomore year. Seeing the intersection between the different sciences come together in a research project was a wonderful experience. The work facilitated by Dr. Schreibman, Dr. Zarnoch, and the collaboration they demonstrated with other members of the Brooklyn College Science Community really amped my interest in the field.

With the help of Dr. Kobrak, I started my first internship at Virginia Dare, an extracts and flavor house. I started off as a quality control chemist where I got to see the application of many of the labs we did in school like gas chromatography, HPLC, and titrations to name a few. When I graduated I moved to the beverage department, where I worked on product matching, formula design with consideration of calories, appearance, and of course taste. I really enjoyed my time there. On our downtime I find myself speaking with veteran employees about the research they have done with emulsions and other products, real estate, and their own career journeys. I learned so much, but wanted to see how things would pan out in the world of cosmetic chemistry, that’s when I started working at AVON.

As a productivity chemist at AVON, I got to work on preparing different consumer products with a focus on reducing the cost while maintaining the quality. Being involved in the formulation and scale-up of a consumer product was really cool. I got to see the process from its inception. From making multiple batches of shampoos, hand creams and other products in the lab, to product testing with microbiology, toxicology, stability testing and of course getting various approvals including the folks in marketing. I worked at AVON full-time (4 days a week). Once a week I got to work at Brooklyn College as an adjunct instructor for first year General Chemistry and I LOVED it.

It was only once a week, but I enjoyed working with undergrad students on seeing how the puzzle pieces of science and chemistry in particular fit so perfectly to create meaning of the things we overlook daily. Of course there were struggles at times, but it was a wonderful learning experience and from there I knew I wanted to teach Chemistry full-time.


ABOUT MY WORK:  I got into the Teaching Fellows Program and quickly entered the Department of Education as a high school science teacher while working on my Masters Degree in Education. Obviously there was a huge difference between teaching high school chemistry and college chemistry. Initially, I was a little overwhelmed with the graduate school and full time position, but those two years go by before you know it.

Building my skills as a pedagog, finding ways to incorporate literacy and mathematical reasoning skills into my lessons, making sure to connect with students as a person, helping them through whatever struggles they have, while taking them through the perfect choreography that exists between elements, particles, and energy in chemistry, became a journey of its own. High School Chemistry is similar to some of the introductory work done in General Chemistry. Often students are in the class because they have been programmed into it, or have a related career interest, regardless; building relevance into the topics and helping students see where in their daily life they come across these concepts brings a renewed sense of interest from all of us. Designing lab experiences for students from the student guide that they see, to the preparation of the solutions and substances they’ll use, and making meaning of the concept behind the activity all involves an understanding of the concepts learned in undergrad- not to mention a lot of time. There are usually tons of resources online to help with all this and if you are lucky you will have other chemistry teachers around to work through this with you.

Teachers often wear multiple hats. Besides teaching, I support teacher development as a Lead Teacher. I work with other teachers on facilitating discussions around data collection and analysis for instructional modifications, vertically aligning curriculum so that we are building student skills during their tenure in high school, collaborating to mutually improve our practice, and providing students with the experiences that would make a career in STEM fields more tenable. I am ever grateful that things have worked out well.

There are always tons of opportunities to further your career in the Department of Education, especially in science as long as you are willing to pursue them regardless of how rigorous the process may be. Currently, as a Math for America Master Teacher Fellow, I get to collaborate with other science teachers who are not just passionate about the content, but about student success and teaching as well. Besides the generous stipend, they provide a unique opportunity to connect with other professionals and discuss the delicate intricacies within a chemistry topic and its application to the classroom. Recently, I’ve been working with AP for All trying to increase the availability of AP courses and AP/college readiness for a broader group of students. Alongside one other teacher, I also write curriculum for the Chemistry Advanced Placement Courses in NYC funded by AP for All. It’s been such an exciting journey and I don’t think I’m done yet. I hope to one day use my background in industry and in education to create a pipeline for students with disabilities to enter positions like the ones I held regardless of how long it may take them to get there.


ADVICE ABOUT ENTERING THE FIELD:  When I graduated college the economy was in a recession and the job market didn’t look too bright. I was a nervous senior who didn’t want to be unemployed. Even though I was in an internship and had some research experience I found myself applying to at least 20 positions a night and hearing from only a handful.

It was a little scary, but the experience I had gained during undergrad was really powerful. I highly encourage students in undergrad to find an internship, or to reach out to a professor and do some research in the lab.

When applying for a job in industry, potential employers will look for the specific technical chemistry skills you have mastered. Going from one position to the other, I asked my colleagues at the time to look over my resume and suggest any changes and consistently they would include the specific scientific procedures that we practiced. In reflecting on my college experience, I found that many of those procedures were labs we conducted in some of our chemistry classes. Having research lab experience made me so comfortable with wet chemistry techniques. Although in industry you often work under a more senior chemist, knowing how to calculate dilutions to suit your product sample, and apply other lessons learned in chemistry, without having to ask for help, certainly reflects well on you. The work done in industry is often like a puzzle with deadlines. You might be given an assignment like matching a competing company’s formula, or reformulating a product to meet new FDA guidelines or another country’s guidelines, or just making the product more cost effective. Often times it is up to you in the lab to access your mental arsenal of techniques to figure out how you’ll get it done. That’s the exciting part and seeing your product come into its final form and use is an added privilege; but be prepared to go through the entire process of working on a sample making a batch, tossing it, and starting over every time it doesn’t come out right.

Don’t be afraid to move around and ask for advice from those around you. Often veteran employees will have more insight into other branches of the industry, contacts in other companies, and a perspective that would be otherwise unknown to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

Teaching is a different type of puzzle. It involves knowing how to cull out ideas from other people, knowing the micro skills that lead to understanding a broader concept, lots of planning, and patience as students make meaning of the content. Although people tend to assume that teaching is a stagnant career, the world is changing, and so do our practices. There are constantly new initiatives, directives, and opportunities and it’s on the teacher to remain abreast and adjust accordingly. Teaching can be really stressful. Attempting to get through so many topics and finding that students don’t possess the basic skills to access them is often a challenge, but you find ways to address these throughout the year.

Originally I went into Chemistry to be a patent attorney I ended up doing so many other things instead. Chemistry has so many applications in different fields. My brother in law majored in Chemistry and did research on polymer science, his work now involves making computer simulations of molecular models. My husband also studied science (at Brooklyn College as well- where we met) and for a while he was creating science study programs for medical students and is now a physician himself. From administrative jobs, to positions in law, teaching, industry, marketing there are a ton of options with a Chemistry degree so don’t be afraid to to explore and find your niche.

No matter how you use your chemistry degree finding passion in what you do and making that evident in your work is the trick. I wish you all the best and tremendous success.


Elina Trofimovsky, Endocrinologist

FULL NAME:  Elina Trofimovsky, MD
OCCUPATION:  Endocrinologist

ABOUT ME:  I was born in the Ukraine and my family immigrated to the US when I was 13. I went to New Utrecht high school in Brooklyn and then to the Brooklyn College BAMD/Macaulay honors program.

I think the hardest thing in college is figuring out what we want to do career-wise. So I’ll recount my process.

Throughout school I loved math and science the most – it was logical, easy to understand, didn’t involve much route memorization… I had an amazing chemistry teacher in high school Mr. Brunetti who just made basic chemistry so simple (just like Professor Kobrak). The rules made things click with clarity for the practical part of my brain so going into college I knew I wanted to major in chemistry, little did I know about organic chemistry then! Although I must say at the time when I was at BC, quantum chemistry was a breeze because the late Professor Levine taught it so well…

I also knew I’m a “people’s person.” I minored in psychology while at BC as well. I knew I wanted to work with people and help them while exercising my brain, so at the time, being a doctor made sense and I applied for the BAMD program, got wait-listed but then accepted when another candidate chose a different university.

I started Brooklyn College in 2001 – I can still say with certainty that physics and organic chemistry were the hardest courses I ever took. Even medical school was by in large conceptually simpler but boy oh boy was it more work – take the studying/cramming for biology and multiply by 1000 –  the sheer volume of information to grasp and make sense of…  lots of studying time in med school – so be ready!

I realized when I chose to join the BAMD program at Brooklyn College which was linked to SUNY Downstate that I was committed to a field in medicine which I knew little about. During high school I had volunteered in a nursing home with resident recreational activities to enliven the residents and bring smiles to their faces, but there was no clinical exposure there. The summer before college I followed a local primary care physician and during one the semesters at BC I spent a few hours a week shadowing a radiation physicist at Brooklyn Hospital who was working with the oncology service (check out the internship/externship opportunities the college offers, some of them even pay a bit). I knew right there and then that working solo was not for me, working with very ill patients possibly at the end of their life was also not for me, but the medical field in general still had its pull.

While at Brooklyn college, Dr. Kobrak advertised to our class the opportunity to accompany him to Brookhaven national lab on a research project on ionic liquids – I had no idea what those were at the time but I figured it’d be an amazing opportunity to see bench science research at its core and I was curious to see if that’s something I’d enjoy doing. Dr. Wishart and associates were studying the properties of certain ionic liquids which could then be used in industry i.e. for disposal of toxic or radioactive waste (so if you major in chemistry you can work for the EPA or industry to figure out how to save our planet, environment, energy sources and ourselves). I and the other students on the project got to help out in the way we would during chemistry lab by performing certain step-by-step instructions. Basically the researcher is like a grown-up child wondering about the universe and figuring things out (except he has a full lab of assistants to help him as well) – it does require lots of knowledge, imagination, discipline, persistence and self-directed learning. Again I knew research wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, my best friend worked in a biology lab while she was at Hunter College and ended up pursuing a PhD because she loved it. My now husband trained to be a psychiatrist and then did a research fellowship and now made a career out of it because he enjoys figuring things out more than clinical work…

I also got to volunteer a bit in the BC learning center proof-reading papers with students for whom English was a second language which reinforced my love for teaching. Honestly, what I do 60% of the time as an endocrinologist is teach my patients about healthy diet/lifestyle choices, their illness, their treatment options, their medications, how to take them, possible serious side effects they need to be aware of, etc. I had even had to make hand-outs of the most common things I discuss like a teacher would.

I treat patients with diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, and obesity for the most part. I love working with people and find it very rewarding.

I spend 30% of my actual patient time figuring out what’s wrong with patients and using my brain to interpret lab results/patient’s symptoms and guide my patients to the best possible treatment solutions. It’s what drew me to science in the first place: 1) gather all the necessary information, 2) formulate a hypothesis (although in medicine it’s typically a number of hypotheses which are on the differential diagnosis at the same time) and then prove/disprove it.

I spend the remaining 10% of the time using my intuition, or what we now call ‘emotional intelligence,’ on how to best communicate with my patients, how to motivate them, how to help reach a clinical decision and offer compassionate care – all of this requires a lot of people skills because we’re very complicated psychological beings.

I specifically chose a field in which most of the conditions are correctable so I could feel like I’m making a difference w/o feeling constantly sad. I specifically chose a field which was not very procedural because I’m a chicken at heart – unlike some of my friends who, like car mechanics, enjoy opening up, fixing and putting together again :).

It took 4 yrs of medical school, 3 yrs of internal medicine training and 2yrs of specialty training AFTER college to get to where I am today.

Looking back – medical school was a lot of memorization but everyone’s in it together, you do whatever it takes – paying attention in lecture, listening to the audio recordings, individual study, group study, etc.

Chemistry came up a lot in my medical school training when we were covering pharmacology (would presume it’d be even more crucial for pharmacists), concepts like pH, receptor binding, etc.  Chemistry also comes up a lot in the clinical laboratory – one of my friends who majored in chemistry works in a laboratory setting.

When I transitioned from the first 2yrs of just conceptual learning in medical school to the second 2yrs of hospital rotations I actually experienced a culture shock i.e. ‘this is not what I signed up for’ – I couldn’t bear to see the after-stroke or dying cancer patients. I wanted to quit. I was reassured by a great endocrine mentor that not all fields in medicine are so devastating and some fields are mostly office-based.  Here’s a gentle reminder to shadow and volunteer to get a glimpse into the future.

Residency was physically and emotionally draining – at times working 100 hour weeks (now there’re better hour regulations). It’s a huge learning curve, requires looking things up at every corner (still is actually).

It’s also very humbling and at the same time empowering to be in the position of helping people in their most vulnerable state.

The hardest parts of my job are: the long hours (after seeing patients catching up on office notes, call-backs, lab/imaging orders and results, communication orders, medication approvals, etc), the guilt of  not seeing my kids while staying late at the office.

Personal plug: If any of you guys reading this go into administrative work or governmental jobs or computer jobs and can help simplify this burden for doctors – perhaps they wouldn’t be as exhausted:)

I also didn’t realize the issues our health care system has in terms of the absence of a unified medical record, the different insurance companies having different rules and approved medication formularies which all seem like unnecessary burdens to overcome which technology can help solve (another plug).

Not having an answer is sometimes difficult – just as for the researcher or the teacher…

In the end, I got what I wanted – I’m working with people, I’m helping them.

I got a few things I didn’t bargain for – endless paperwork and carpal tunnel.

Chemistry is still pretty much at the core of my field of hormones and receptors & feed-back loops. So there you have it.

I think the take-away messages are: 1) chemistry will land you a job in whichever setting you want, 2) it’s important to volunteer/shadow or somehow get exposed to whatever line of work you choose to do not only to start to understand it but also to see whether it’s something you’d like to do most days of the week for many years…


Michelle L. Leuenberger, Engineer, Intel

FULL NAME:  Michelle L. Leuenberger
OCCUPATION:  Starting October 2nd, 2017: Engineer at Intel in Santa Clara, CA;  until August 31st, 2017: Graduate Student Researcher in the Fleming Lab at UC Berkeley, College of Chemistry


ABOUT ME:  Born and raised in Upstate New York, I began traveling to NYC when I was 13 and signed a modeling contract with Wilhelmina.  After high school, I bounced back and forth between Upstate and NYC, eventually landing in Brooklyn where I earned a BS in Chemistry from Brooklyn College in 2011.  I started out as a nutrition major, but quickly became engrossed in the challenges of Chemistry and changed my major accordingly.  I always liked math, puzzles, and problem solving so it seemed right.  Since then, I’ve spent a year in Germany on a Fulbright research fellowship, five years in the Fleming Lab at UC Berkeley earning my PhD in physical chemistry, and now I’ve landed what seems to be a really great job (I haven’t started yet so more on that later!) at Intel in Santa Clara, CA.  It sounds like a lot and it’s a lot more than I expected to accomplish back when I was at Brooklyn College, studying Chemistry – which is why I want to share my story with you.   I want you to know what’s possible if you decide to pursue a career in Science.

You may think you don’t fit the description of a scientist, but neither do I.  Before I began studying chemistry, I was a high fashion model for almost a decade.  I traveled for photo shoots and castings and I was even moderately successful.  But there’s an undeniable truth about success in modeling – it hinges almost entirely upon youth, an attribute that can only depreciate over time.  It was just too depressing – so I quit, started waiting tables, and went back to school as a nontraditional student at CUNY Brooklyn, where I had the good fortune of meeting Prof. Brian Gibney.  Prof. Gibney suggested I might be interested in research, and maybe even something else I’d never thought about – grad school.  It was only after actually going to grad school that I realized just how little I had known about it, and about Academia.  At the time Gibney introduced the idea to me, I had literally no idea what I was getting into.  But I’d always wanted to go back to Germany (I went for a month in high school) and I’d always wanted to live in CA, where my mother grew up.  So, I applied for a Fulbright research fellowship in Germany and graduate schools in CA with the help of Prof. Gibney.  The application processes are somewhat grueling but keep in mind, that probably weeds out a lot of people so if you stick with it, you have decent chances.  My hard work during the application process and studying for GRE exams paid off and I got both the Fulbright fellowship and into UC Berkeley.  I recently completed my PhD and accepted a job at Intel, where I’ll begin in early October.  I hope I’ve convinced you that there are many pathways to a career in science and that scientists come in many different forms with different backgrounds.  If you love science, believe in yourself and go for it!

ABOUT MY WORK: I was just hired at Intel and haven’t started working there yet so I don’t know a whole lot about what the job entails.  Here’s what I know so far: Intel is continuously working to make smaller and smaller transistors for electronics like computers and smart phones.  As the chips get smaller, you can imagine that any flaws get bigger relative to the features and therefore become more detrimental to the functionality of the product.  The process also becomes more and more complex.  Each step in the process is carried out by a large machine that must be maintained in order to keep the fab (factory) up and running at all times.  In addition to maintenance, the machines are always being improved upon to improve things like efficiency and yield.  My understanding is that it will be my job to familiarize myself with the workings of a particular machine (my assigned tool), maintain it, and eventually contribute to research and development directed at improving upon the machine and/or process.

From what I’ve heard, Intel tends to hire STEM PhDs into this type of position and does not require that your previous research relates to the work done at Intel.  Earning a PhD in science proves to them, and likely to other companies, that you have the capacity and the drive to learn complex concepts and solve unique and challenging problems.  They are interested in your ability to think critically and in your tenacity.  I can’t say much about the day-to-day since I haven’t started working there yet.  So far, I know I will have a meeting each morning at 8:30am during which I’ll be updated on the status of the tool (or machine) I’m assigned to, and that I will be on call to help troubleshoot the tool most weekday evenings and some weekends.  Conversations with current employees in similar positions at Intel suggest dress is fairly casual – jeans, button down shirts, low-heeled to no-heeled boots.  Sounds pretty comfortable to me!  I’ll be able to share more once I actually begin working at Intel.

Here’s what I can tell you a lot about: Traveling abroad and graduate school.

On traveling abroad: TRAVEL ABROAD! After working to support myself through my undergraduate degree I was exhausted.  My travel abroad experience with Fulbright allowed me to continue to grow my resume for a career in science while taking the opportunity to explore another part of the world and experiencing Western Europe’s take on work-life balance.  Go to the scholarship or fellowship office at CUNY Brooklyn college and ask about your eligibility for travel fellowships.  I highly encourage you to go through the application process and give it your best effort.  Again, many students will be deterred by the application process alone so getting through this part is a big accomplishment.  The most important piece of advice I can offer you is to ASK FOR HELP.  There is definitely a right way to approach these applications and it’s important that you follow it.  Your best bet is to ask a professor or a previous recipient of the particular grant you’re interested in.

On grad school: Graduate school is a strange beast I did not truly begin to understand until I was already in the belly of her – it’s wonderful albeit a bit brutal all at once.  It’s wonderful because it will likely be the first time you are asked to think beyond what is already known – to generate and try to answer questions too complicated for most folks to grasp (not because they can’t, but because they haven’t put in the time and effort to develop the requisite background).  But it can be brutal because you are on the frontier – there is no handbook, no protocol.  It’s just you and science, you and applied math, you and your chosen field.  Perhaps most intimidating of all, you face the task of convincing your peers (other scientists) that you believe enough in yourself that they should believe in you too.  It’s a lesson in debate and confidence – but also in communication.  Your assertions will never be accepted without evidence and your evidence is worthless if you cannot describe it in words well enough to garner understanding among your scientific peers.  The first talk you give to your peers and a prof or two will turn your stomach inside out – but it gets much better.  Eventually, you gain confidence and you earn the respect of your peers and these talks become fun, informative and inspiring.  And hopefully this all leads to the publication of your work.

During my PhD, I studied a process tangential to photosynthesis in the group of Graham Fleming in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley.  The Fleming lab is a spectroscopy group, meaning they study the interaction of light with matter.  My research pertained to energy transfer mechanisms in light harvesting complexes in plants – specifically, my research involved shooting a laser at a plant leaf and measuring the fluorescence the leaf then emits as a function of time – pretty cool, right?  The goal was to understand how plants change the energy transfer networks in their antenna complexes in order to protect themselves from damage (essentially from sun burn) under high light conditions while maintaining highly efficient energy transfer and therefore optimally efficient photosynthesis, under low light conditions (shade).  I’m sure it sounds crazy and strange – but that’s why science is awesome.  My work involved reading a ton of journal articles about photosynthesis, energy transfer and photoprotection in plants, maintaining and optimizing a femtosecond (10-12 sec) laser, a table full of optics, and a microchannel plate photomultiplier tube detector, data acquisition and analysis, writing code to automate data analysis, interpreting results, and attending seminars, talks, meetings, and conferences related to my research topic.  Most graduate students, myself included, are also responsible for teaching at some point, some amount of coursework, putting together various talks and presentations, and writing about science in various capacities such as funding proposals, funding reviews and renewals, publications, etc.  Additionally, I had the job of PC administrator in my research group, which meant I was responsible for maintaining group computers, printers, software, and things like that.  I was an instructor for introductory chemistry lab for one semester during each of my first three years at Berkeley and I mentored two undergraduates within my research group during my final two years of graduate school.  I really enjoyed the students at Berkeley and would choose to teach again even if I hadn’t been required to.

Graduate school was definitely challenging but I’m so glad I stuck it out.  I loved going to conferences – it really began to feel like a community since photosynthesis is a fairly small field and I saw the same people year after year.  I did find it difficult to live on such a low income (especially in the bay area) but it was definitely doable.  I even had a car payment and a dog to take care of on top of normal expenses, and I managed.  I recommend budgeting carefully to make it work. Another aspect of grad school I enjoyed was taking classes outside of chemistry at Berkeley – I became very involved in the theater, dance and performance studies department at Berkeley and I took a course in the business school as well, where I helped design a pathway to market plan for a cleantech startup company with a team of MBA students and made important connections in the worlds of venture capitalism and nascent clean technologies.

Academia is a place for thinking deeply about the world’s problems and about human progress.  If you like to do that, then you will find a home in the academic world – grad school will grow you more than it will break you.  But it is not for the faint of heart.  When I arrived in Berkeley, I had just experienced a personal tragedy.  I was dealing with serious trauma that impacted my memory and cognitive functioning.  To make matters worse, Berkeley graduate school classes (taken during the first year usually) seemed geared toward knocking EVERYONE down a notch to ensure that we were all on the same playing field.  I felt like I was drowning – sometimes I don’t know how I managed, but I did, using every resource I could find along the way to the fullest.  First semester at Berkeley, you take classes, teach, and try to find a research group to join – and you almost go mad from the stress of it all.  Second semester is a little better – you take more classes and begin doing research but you don’t have to teach.  During your second year you will teach again and prepare for, and take your qualifying exam, which determines whether you can move on to candidacy (become a PhD candidate).  The qualifying exam was the scariest hurdle at Berkeley (I think it can differ from University to University).  It’s an oral exam during which you present your research project to four professors who continuously stop you and ask you to explain your topic in terms of basic chemistry concepts.  I approached this as a talk during which I should present my research while professors try to throw me off track – Honestly, the preparation and practice exams with peers were far worse than the actual exam itself.  It is painful to repeatedly get up in front of your peers and have your ignorance revealed until you’ve patched enough holes in your knowledge to be called an expert – but it sure as hell does prepare you to give a convincing talk.  It teaches you to be confident and to make sure you can back up your assertions with solid reason and evidence.  It’s partly about performance but it’s certainly not something you can BS your way through.  You have to really work for it.  Some people don’t pass the qualifying exam the first time but most who decide to take it a second time will pass, although some will give up at that stage.  At Berkeley, there is no thesis defense.  After the qualifying exam, we simply research, write, publish, and submit a thesis.  During my third and fourth years, I had one more semester of teaching and I worked on projects, took classes, and in my final year I published a paper in PNAS and wrote my thesis (in addition to performing in a dance piece).

These are the best things about grad school, in my opinion:

  • Really cool science and technology, like you wouldn’t believe. Cutting edge of EVERYTHING!
    • Hardware
    • Talks
    • Conferences
    • Computing, models and simulations
  • Hanging out with really smart, interesting and curious people
  • Most chemistry PhD programs will pay your University fees and offer you a modest stipend. Some other STEM PhD programs do as well.
  • Learning that I can do pretty much anything if I keep trying long enough
  • Blasting music alone in the laser lab while I tweak the setup or align the laser
  • I had a LASER (not mine really but it was mine to play with for a few years…)
  • The friends I made
  • The job I got after
  • The classes available at the university outside of my field

These are the worst things about grad school in my opinion:

  • Not much guidance on what to do or how to do it (but that’s part of how you learn to think independently)
  • Hella stress
  • Qualifying exam is terrifying
  • Low income for 5 years (but great income after…)
  • The work can feel thankless
  • Research involves a lot of failure – sometimes it can be pretty discouraging



  1. The number one piece of advice I can give you is to APPLY for these things – apply for travel grants, apply to grad school. This one step makes you 100% more likely to get the thing than if you had not applied for it. Remember how many people will look at the application and be too intimidated or too lazy to complete it – I contend that simply applying is the biggest activation energy barrier here! Go to the scholarship or fellowship office at Brooklyn College for information.
  2. Put significant effort into your application. Start by asking for help because there is definitely a right way to go about applying! Ask a prof or an alum of the fellowship you are interested in.
  3. The GREs: The general exam will likely be fairly easy for you unless English is your second language, in which case you will need to work a little harder on your vocab – get some flash cards and get to work. I did, and English is my first language. It doesn’t take much to improve your scores a lot this way.  Brush up on math tricks by using a study guide geared toward the GRE – the tricks are simple but they’re easy to forget over the years so it’s important to refresh your skills. The subject test is a real beast.  I recommend doing several practice exams, learn good study and exam taking skills, and just power through on test day.  My experience was that the exam felt so terrible I almost considered quitting about halfway through.  It’s a difficult exam and it will likely make you feel like crap – but whatever you do, don’t give up.   You can take the exam again if necessary, but I doubt you’ll want to so it’s best to just do your best and try to get it over with.  You can do fairly poorly and still get into a good grad program.  You need to take your GRE early enough to apply to grad schools so find this information well in advance and prepare accordingly.
  4. Research: If you’re interested in graduate school, you should join a research group asap (talk to your profs). It’s important to begin to get an idea of what scientific research in academia entails – but also you need to begin forming a network that will help you navigate the world of academic science.  It’s a great opportunity to be mentored by someone in a career that interests you and it is really the only way to enter the field of research (that I’m aware of).  The professor you work with will likely guide you through applying for fellowships and to grad schools as well.


  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication: written and oral
  • Objectivity
  • Coding in any language is very helpful but not necessary (you can learn!)
  • Ability and willingness to learn new things
  • You might be good at both experiment and theory, or just one or the other


  • Curiosity
  • Tenacity and perseverance
  • Patience and persistence
  • Logical
  • Precision
  • Drive/Motivation
  • Integrity and honesty

Mohammed Alsaidi, Neurosurgeon

FULL NAME:  Mohammed Alsaidi
OCCUPATION:  Neurosurgeon


ABOUT ME:  I grew up in Yemen and moved to NYC, knowing very little English. After completing ESL classes, I went on to attend Brooklyn College from 2000 to 2004 majoring in computer and information science in addition to chemistry. During that time, I also volunteered at many hospitals in addition to pursing a robust research project in the laboratory of Dr. Zhen Huang. My research focused on developing micro RNA chips. Those efforts culminated in publishing two papers in addition to a few presentations. Furthermore, I was awarded two Summer Research Scholarships from the Department of Chemistry in addition to the Brooklyn College Presidential Scholarship throughout my years at BC. Prior to my admission to the Penn State College in Medicine in the summer of 2004, I was awarded the prestigious Salk Annual Award, given to few students throughout the entire CUNY system.  The work ethics and analytic thinking I acquired while pursuing my degrees, especially in chemistry, and research projects coupled with the guidance offered by the Department of Chemistry, made me feel more than prepared to take on the next endeavors of my life.

While in medical school from 2004 to 2008, I participated in summer research projects at the Laboratory of Dr. James Connor focusing on studying potential links between hemochemotosis mutations and brain tumors in addition to potential chemotherapy for such diseases. After finishing medical school, I started my neurosurgery residency at the Department of Neurological Surgery in Henry Ford Hospital in the summer of 2008. During residency, I also spent three months in Boston Hospital doing pediatric rotation. I also participated in clinical research in the fields of spine, and pediatric epilepsy in addition to brain tumors. Such efforts have resulted in publication of many peer-reviewed papers in addition to oral and electronic presentation at the national level through the American Association of Neurological Surgeons as well as to the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

ABOUT MY WORK:  I am full staff neurosurgeon at Beaumont Health in Michigan. My practice involves seeing patients in clinic in addition to the hospital. I treat various neurological disorders that include spinal pathologies such as degenerative disc disease, spinal trauma and tumors. I also treat various brain disorders such as tumors, trauma, and hemorrhages.

My typical day starts at 7 AM and I finish around 6 PM. While On Call, I am expected to be available to manage neurosurgical emergencies at any time of the day. I electively operate about 2 days out of the week in addition to emergencies. I enjoy my job and it could be rather hectic on occasion. Few times in a month I find myself working and operating into the late hours of the day. During such busy clinical duties, I also try to keep up with the latest publications found in the major neurosurgical journals in order to advance my knowledge.

After the 4 grueling years of medical school, my training started as a resident for a period of seven years total. During those years, I would spend close to 90 and sometimes 110 hours a week. It could be mentally draining but I also felt it helped to build character.

The world of neurosurgery is not far from the basic science of chemistry and biochemistry. For example, for someone to truly understand the complexities of the pathogenesis of many brain tumors and the current/potential treatments, one must have a mastery of basic biochemical concepts. Many of the abstract ideas that one learns in undergraduate study become more relevant in the course of residency.


1) Immense yourself in the field of your study as an undergraduate. If you are pursuing a chemistry or biology degree, then make sure you supplement that with at least a yearlong research project.

2) Pay attention to the humanities courses since they will serve you well. We do live in complex social and political times.

3) Participate in conferences if you can.

4) Do not be afraid to make a mistake.

5) Be prepared to spend many hours studying and working.

6) With such physically and mentally straining life style as student, medical student and later as a resident, one must develop hobbies to “decompress” the excessive stress.

7) Always reassess your weaknesses and strengths.

8) Be kind.

9) If you think about going to medicine for any reason other than medicine itself, you will have a hard time.


This blog was created to help you, our students, understand the career paths that a degree in chemistry can open up for you.  Images of chemists in the popular media usually show them working in a lab full of strange devices, often plotting global conquest.  While these are valid career options, there are many others that may appeal to those with a less hands-on, world-domination bent.

Chemists are found in business, law, and government, with many in occupations that involve little or no lab work. Chemists make certain that our food and water are safe, protect the environment, enforce the law, restore artwork, and pursue many other fascinating and fulfilling occupations.  We have created some resources to give you an overview of the opportunities, and the American Chemical Society has still more.

But words on a page are often not enough.  Here, every month, we will invite a friend of the department to post a blog entry and respond to student comments and questions.  This is your chance to interact with people in any field that interests you.  Find out what they do, how they got where they are, and whether it might be right for you.

We have asked our guests to respond to comments for up to 30 days after their page is posted, so if you see a current post that interests you, jump in!  Comments on older blog entries may not be answered.  If your question is not answered, please try to remember that these are people under no obligation to the college.  They have already been generous with their time on your behalf.

Posts will begin in September 2017.