What a doctoral student does in a working day

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Welcome to The Work Day, a series that chronicles a single day in the working lives of various women – from gallery owners to housewives to business executives. In this episode, we hear from Renée Zurui Wang, a graduate student, who recorded a working day in June.

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Location: Pasadena, California

Job title: PhD student in Geochemistry at Caltech

Previous professions: In college, I worked on campus as an undergraduate student and did an internship with the US Geological Survey as a biological field technician surveying mercury in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating, I did an internship at an environmental consulting firm in the DC area and then worked as an English teaching assistant for the French government in French Guiana. I started my PhD in Geochemistry at Caltech in July 2017; I received an MS in Geochemistry from Caltech in June 2019. I also completed an internship at Los Alamos National Labs in the fall of 2021, where I contributed to an ongoing project studying how microbes affect carbon sequestration in soils.

What led me to my current role: Geochemistry is about the chemistry of the earth in general, ranging from the composition of volcanic rocks to the chemistry of rivers and soils. My dissertation focuses on how microbes and their metabolism have shaped this chemistry, from the dawn of Earth’s history to modern times of anthropogenic climate change. Although tiny, microbes are important players in shaping the biosphere, having evolved to catalyze otherwise difficult chemical reactions.

Such questions require creative and interdisciplinary thinking, which has shaped my career so far. Growing up, I was very interested in visual arts and became a California art scholar in middle school. Then I was incredibly fortunate and privileged to be accepted into Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. In Exeter I was really interested in ethics and philosophy – so much so that I was accepted to the University of Southern California as a philosophy major.

However, in the fall of my senior year of high school, I attended Mountain School, a term program where about 30 students live, work, and attend classes on a farm in rural Vermont. It was there that I was introduced to earth science for the first time and was really struck by its potential for understanding the natural world.

How I spend most of my day: It varies greatly and depends on what stage a particular project is in. Some days will be all about lab work, while other days will be dedicated to data analysis and writing. I also have meetings with my advisors and staff. Like most other students, I completed my course requirements in the first two years of my PhD, so I haven’t taken classes in three years now. But when I have time, I sit in on some interesting courses. During some academic semesters I also work as a teaching assistant.

5:30 in the morning: I wake up. I’ve become this crazy person who works out super early, mostly because the lab work can last late into the evening. On days when I don’t exercise, I get up at 6:30 am instead.

6 o’clock in the morning: I joined Megaformer Pilates last summer and now do it twice a week. It’s definitely expensive, so these courses are a nice treat for me. In addition to Pilates, I’ve been swimming with a team of master’s students since I started at Caltech in 2017. The team has been a great source of support and even pushed me to do crazy things like my first marathon swim in the ocean!

7 o’clock in the morning: I come home and have a hearty breakfast. I read the news, play Wordle with my partner and start checking email. I also catch up on chores like the laundry I never folded last night.

8:30 am: I start getting ready for work by showering, packing my lunch, and getting dressed. I’m dressed for the lab today, which means safety and comfort.

9 am: Go to work. I live close to campus so I either walk or bike. Today I’m going for a walk because my legs are very sore from Pilates and I need to stretch them.

9:30 am: I am being advised by Caltech professors Dianne Newman and John Eiler. Tuesdays are Newman lab meetings, which last two hours. It’s the May birthday party today, so it’s bagels and coffee. I’m having a snack while listening to two lab colleagues give short chalk lectures about news about their research or an interesting paper they recently read.

11:30 am: I am meeting with Woody Fischer, another Caltech professor who is not a formal advisor but has become a great mentor to me and with whom I am collaborating on a research project. We review some recent data and discuss possible interpretations as well as future projects that may complement this work.

12:30 pm: lab work! One of my projects measures nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that can be produced by microbes. Atmospheric nitrogen oxide levels have been increasing since the Industrial Revolution, and there are hypotheses that this increase could be due to all the industrial fertilizers we have spread on Earth.

Since we’re working with gases, I need to work on a vacuum line, which (as the name suggests) is a custom glass-blown line that’s held under vacuum. This way, any gases we want to work with will not be contaminated by the outside air. Today I distill nitrous oxide from a mixed gas sample and then seal my sample in a small glass tube. This requires me to use an acetylene torch, which was one of the more powerful tools I had to master during my PhD.

I take five-minute breaks while waiting for gases to condense into liquid nitrogen, so I sneak my lunch (leftovers from last night) to a nearby break room.

3:45 p.m.: The vacuum line is in this tiny, windowless basement room that always gets too warm. I’m usually pretty burned out after work there, so I take a break with tea and blueberries and read the news. Then I work my way through emails.

4:30 p.m.: I forgot I have to pick up a package in my building’s lobby, so I go home early to catch the bouncer before he leaves for the day. On the way home, I stop at a Walgreens to get some toiletries.

17 o’clock: I get home and start cooking dinner with my partner, who is also a Caltech graduate student but in neuroscience. We got married about two months ago (yay!) but it still feels weird to call him my husband. Tonight we’re making a simple sheet pan meal. As we cook and eat, we watch PBS NewsHour and then report on our days.

7:45 p.m.: I take a quick shower and change into my pajamas: an oversized t-shirt and old track pants.

8 p.m.: I usually do a second burst of work before bed, which is usually writing or data analysis. Tonight I’m coding with the TV on; Mindless TV helps me work my way through some of the more boring aspects of programming.

21 clock: I go to bed and shut off my brain. Tonight I’m meeting my brother via text message.

9:30 p.m.: Finally I turn off the light and go to sleep.

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