Why You Should Become a TA Today (or next semester)

While taking a course, it may feel impossible that you could ever muster sufficient
knowledge in that class to get to the level of teaching the subject, however, becoming a TA is as much about continuing your learning experience in a class/subject as it is teaching new students. For the sake of an example, General Chemistry is notorious due to the difficulty and quantity of material that the class puts forth in a semester. From a student’s perspective, every week they’re bombarded with 2-3 new topics related to stoichiometry and quantitative reasoning, chemical bonding, or reactivity among the many areas of chemistry, and in the process of taking the class, they are obliged to learn the material, internalize it and apply it in a fast-paced cyclic manner. This is the first place that the TA’s job comes into play. In a general chemistry class there may be hundreds of students, but only one professor, and so it’s impossible for the professor to answer every question, clarify every misconception, or help guide every student through a different logical process related to problem solving. However, if you add several dozen TAs into the mix, you now have a small army of students that have learned the material previously who can go on to teach several new students each about how they did so in addition to answering questions and clarifying misconceptions. As TAs we act as extensions of the professor and guide students to best practices for studying while also aiding in teaching new material.

In preparing each week to teach students about any subject in a class, there’s an act of recall that forces us to dig into our memories and apply our previous knowledge in a way that solves a new problem, “How do I help this student understand the topic at hand?”. At first this can seem incredibly daunting. “How can I teach someone about a subject when I barely remember it myself?”, is something which often comes to mind. So you find yourself rummaging and reading through your old notes, old problem sets, texts, and even asking fellow TAs and the professor to clarify things as you go along. In doing this, you have just brought yourself one step closer to mastery of the material. This process of recalling information, processing it in a way that you can explain it to others, and self-correcting your own misconceptions along the way solidifies the material in your head and makes it easier to recall the next time.

In addition to solidifying your grasp on the material of a given course, being a TA also has a profound self-development aspect in regards to your interactions with others. In any given field, mentorship and communication are important aspects that often correlate with success. Working as a TA gives you the opportunity to develop both of these skills simultaneously. While having a decent understanding of course material is important, being able to communicate with students is equally important and often the more challenging aspect of TA work. One has to be able to follow through another person’s thinking and anticipate their next move, correct or incorrect, and help guide them towards more logical processes that they can use in solving problems whether they’ve seen something like it before or not. Furthermore, we have to interact with students in a way that encourages them to want to learn, to believe in themselves, and to avoid self-doubt at every turn possible. So, we often have to act as mentors and counselors to our students to help them overcome the issues that aren’t directly related to course material, but that do have an impact on their learning in general. This can come in the form of empathizing and sympathizing by telling our own stories of struggle with the class or another class, or it can come in the form of pep-talks letting them know you’re on their team and you want them to succeed at learning the material, among many other methods. In having to put yourself in their shoes and motivating them to push on and also take breaks as needed, you inadvertently improve how you communicate with them and other students, and you begin forming meaningful mentor-like skills. This will change how you interact with others outside of the classroom as well; you’ll begin noting that encouraging others becomes second-nature, keeping a stolid face in spite of wild statements becomes easy, and you rapidly mature to someone “teacher”-like, in all the best ways.

In all this discussion, mentions of resumes and CV’s have been put off in favor of the more self-fulfilling aspects of being a TA. That’s not to say that the work doesn’t provide great fodder for a well-rounded resume; communication skills, leadership/mentorship skills, and being able to keep a room of 20+ people on task is definitely something to highlight. However, becoming a TA is something that has value beyond the standard resume checklist all college students keep. It’s a way to truly develop relationships that are lasting and skills that are applicable in any area of life. It goes beyond just saying you work well with others or you can take charge of a team, it demonstrates how you come up to the plate, face your fears and flaws, and work to deepen your knowledge while helping others. Altogether, working as a TA can be an incredibly rewarding experience on various levels, and to take part in the process of teaching others and then seeing them grow into TAs brings you great joy and satisfaction over the years. A solid recommendation for any person is to find a class you’re interested in, a course where the material was difficult for you but interested you enough to want to learn more, and find out about what opportunities there are to help with that course as a TA. Not all classes have undergraduate TAs, but a persuasive email never hurts, and you never know if you’re starting up a trend of having undergraduate TAs in a class that can go on to help a lot of future students. If given the opportunity, now, or next semester, or next year, take the chance and change someone’s life for the better as a TA.

Cisco Espinosa, ’22

Minors with the Chem Major

Depending on how you decide to complete the Chem major, it can be very possible to complete one, two, or even three minors if you love liberal arts classes like I do! I’ve completed the major in a pretty unique way—I may technically be considered a biological concentration, but I took all the math required for the physical concentration within the major. I took two classes toward the major at University College London while I was studying abroad. I’ll also graduate with minors in Mathematics, Spanish, and Law and Society.

When you’re looking at the major elective list, you’ll notice that while there are plenty of upper-level Chem classes of course, there’s also a wide variety of other courses so you can also find another (or more than one) subject area from which to choose your electives. For example, I love math and biochemistry, so I used three Math courses towards both the Chem major and my Math minor and I took both the Biochem course and the lab as major electives.

Don’t be ashamed to not take the honors route within the major, do what’s right for you. I realized that while I love chemistry, I wanted lots of room to explore other classes like Social Inequality, U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia Woolf, or Melodrama and Cinema (in Spanish) and doing the non-honors route left me the room in my schedule to do so and to fulfill requirements for the Spanish and Law and Society minors.

Nina Hazra, ’21

The Value of Summer/Winter Internships

Whether your eventual career plans see you going on an academic route, an industry route, or somewhat altogether different, one of the most powerful tools we have to explore what we’re most suitable to is summer internships. While many of us do research in labs or volunteer in areas of niche interest during the academic year, being able to dedicate your full attention to some project or job is a wildly different experience than balancing a full slate of classes and working and trying to learn about some area of interest. It’s often the case that taking on more immersive experiences in fields that we think we’re interested in leads to some clarity about what exactly it is that we do or do not want to pursue in the future, and thus whatever your experience may be, you’ll typically end up narrowing your interests afterwards for better or worse.

As someone who’s always had medicine and research at the forefront of my ultimate career goals, it was natural that I would gravitate towards research and some type of shadowing or caretaking volunteer experiences. In my first two years at Cornell, I have taken advantage of two incredible summer undergraduate research experiences and the Cornell alumni network in finding immersive winter shadowing experiences. The summer research experiences were wildly different from one another in that one was in-person on the Ithaca, Cornell campus, and the other was remote with Boston University (due to COVID). However, more than just being different in terms of execution, both of the experiences had me doing very different work, and the structure of both programs benefitted my career plans in different ways.

My first summer research experience taught me about the intricacies of scientific research and how it’s not enough to have some niche skill and hope to analyze data later on, but rather, it’s important to think like a researcher in interpreting what’s happening with your work in real time. The seminars hosted by the program were geared towards developing my scientific thinking and presentations skills, both of which are incredibly important. However, my second research experience also emphasized this idea, but from a different lens. The experience from this past summer taught me about the value of working independently in formulating a project from literature search to drawing conclusions from data. Moreover, the seminars hosted by this program were more geared to someone pursuing medicine-related research. This was exactly the ball-park I want to work within, so it helped me solidify what I thought would be something I would love, and it opened my eyes to the various paths one can take to achieve a fulfilling career in my fields of interest.

Thinking about my winter experiences, I definitely had to put in a more conscious effort in constructing a series of things to do. It’s often difficult to find a pre-structed winter experience given the time constraints, but with a little thought and helpful mentors it became a matter of putting together pieces of things I couldn’t accomplish while balancing classes and working duties during the semester. For me, this translated to shadowing, and updating my CV, resume, and medical/graduate school search list. I know that many people would roll their eyes at the thought of structuring these activities into an otherwise short winter break, but it’s surprising how fun it can be to work on these things when there’s no schoolwork-imposed stressors. It is totally necessary and reasonable to take breaks during your break, especially when ending a hard semester, so I always make sure that I take the time to recharge, but having these mini-projects along the way helps keep me occupied when I’m feeling fidgety from a lack of having something to do. Additionally, I like to think that everything I do helps me get a couple steps closer to the career of my dreams, so I often think to that truth as my inspiration and it makes the process a lot more fun.

Regardless of the dynamics of fun versus labor-intensive experiences, taking on activities, or creating your own experiences when it comes to your winters and summers can be incredibly enlightening. As students it’s nearly impossible to get the full grad-school or industry experience during our semesters, so it’s hard to know if these fields of interest are truly something that you want to pursue or not. Thus, these summer/winter periods are amazing in that you have the time to go explore the fields/jobs that speak to you and solidify or modify what your next steps are, and it doesn’t hurt to find programs that pay you to do so. Looking back on my time in college so far, my summer and winter experiences have brought me a great deal of clarity and hope in that I’ve established a better picture of who I want to be as a future physician-scientist and I’ve been able to dig out some pathways to get there. Finding and applying to these experiences isn’t always the easiest, but you’d be surprised what a Google deep dive can do when it comes to exposing what opportunities exist in the world. Likewise, speaking of the world, it’s important to keep in mind that your potential experiences are not limited to one country. For those with the yearn to travel, undergraduate career experiences can take you to all corners of the globe is you so wish. So, to any person teetering on the idea of pursuing an experience, I fully endorse it. The type of experience you get in these programs is unparalleled by any “Day in the Life” vlogs or articles from someone already in the field you want to pursue. Taking a step into your potential future life is exhilarating, and it puts into context a lot of what we do in our academic life and why we do it, so I cannot say with any greater fervor, go for it.

Cisco Espinosa, ’22

Have Fun in Labs

Let’s be real. No one really enjoys writing a lab report or doing boring tasks during labs. As chemistry students, you will be repeating the same motions every week, doing seemingly simple tasks like dilutions or separations left and right. You may see your friends do interesting things in their other labs and get real data rather than just stick some powder or liquid in a machine to analyze something. But there is more to chemistry labs that make the experience enjoyable, regardless of the mindless tasks and tedious notebooks were told to keep.

Organic labs teach you the basics and you repeat those same skills in every application. But you can still have fun doing experiments or see some cool things that are more than just pictures in a textbook or drawings of intangible molecules. You labor in lab for a few days and you end up with a white powder as a product. The process of figuring out what you did, doing everything right (or wrong), you really get to understand why seemingly easy things are practically challenging. It won’t feel good to not get anything or get bad products but having fun is a key to making the time in these labs seem less tedious but rather a fun part of the day.

Talk to your hood partner. Get to know them. Teaming up, helping each other out and laughing at mistakes. Ask your TA questions, chat with them in a friendly way. See what they’re like. Have fun with them. Making these connections serves to lighten the grind of lab work and will make any situation enjoyable. Even if you make mistakes, that’s the fun of it.

I remember in Chem 3010, we were handling a very reactive acid, chlorosulfonic acid. We had them in test tubes over beakers of water. I was starting the reaction only for the test tube to explode. The acid fell, sizzled, and exploded the water. It was scary and dangerous, but seeing the smoke-filled hood closed and thinking that the department trusts us with some dangerous stuff is both humbling and cool. Now safety is of upmost importance but handling some things in labs that you usually don’t see in everyday life is fun and can both teach and entertain you in many ways. Have fun in your labs, its not just about the grade or results that you get but it’s certainly made better by the experiences and fun you have along the way.

Aaron Li, ‘22

Self Care

During this time of the year, it seems like everybody is more stressed out and irritable as we enter the never-ending prelims-semifinals-finals season. Even though spending every waking minute on studying, jobs, etc., might seem appealing for the academic and financial benefits, it can actually hurt your health in the long run. As college students, we sometimes don’t take the  time to think about our physical, mental, and emotional health. We tend to do things like bragging about how many all-nighters we pulled this semester or how many consecutive hours  we worked on something without a break. We are likely all guilty of this, but should we really be sacrificing our health just to prove that we are workaholics? When phrased like this, it seems  obvious that the answer is no, so how do we care for ourselves while maintaining a healthy work-life balance? 

Everybody has heard that we should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night in order to stay healthy, but how many of us actually reach that number? If you are not getting that amount, think about your daily schedule. Am I taking 22 credits because it is absolutely necessary or am I doing it due to peer pressure? Am I joining clubs for the experiences or just as a way to put one more thing on my resume? This semester, I dropped a class that I thought I was definitely going to take a few months ago because I realized that it wasn’t the right fit for me and I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I also left a club when I felt that I wasn’t getting any meaningful experiences  from it. By doing this, I feel like I can prioritize my health a bit more and decrease any unnecessary stress. 

While sleep is an important aspect of the self-care equation, what we do during the day is equally important. With the vast number of online classes this semester, it seems like we are always cooped up in our rooms, only leaving for food and surveillance testing. However, that takes a mental and physical toll on our bodies. During this semester, I have continued to go on a run several times each week, and I try to spend at least some time outside every day. I find that going on a 15 minute walk outside can do wonders for clearing my head and reenergizing my body. Although we seem to live in a virtual world right now, that doesn’t mean we need to  sacrifice our health. Therefore, I encourage you to prioritize your health first this semester since the long-term gains will be worth it.

Justin Xu, ’23

Getting Involved in Research

I was originally very intimidated by the prospect of doing research at Cornell. It is crazy to think that you could go from taking a introductory-level course from a professor one year to working alongside them in the lab the next, but I think one of the first things that students going into research have to jettison is the idea that they are a “student” and not a practicing scientist in their own right. A sage piece of advice I heard from a professor when I was applying to the chemistry major was that in chemistry you really are able to get right down to work in a lab once you have had basic undergraduate quantum mechanics and organic chemistry. Still, one of the biggest challenges I have faced in research has been building my confidence as a scientist.

As I got into doing research at Cornell, I realized that I was never really going to get anywhere if I was only doing what somebody else told me to do. I think too often (and this was true in my own case) undergraduates are content to live in a kind of stasis with their research work and they do not try to really see their research projects through. What I had to force myself to realize was that nobody was going to shepherd me through my own research project, so to push things forward I had to think deeply about my own research problem and to have my own original ideas about it. While being in the lab and doing benchwork can be really fun, I have found that my most rewarding experiences in science have just come from struggling to understand what my results mean and piecing together the underlying narrative. 

This kind of work is still incredibly hard! As I have taken a leading role in my own research project, I have sunk a lot of time into stressing about whether this mutation will have the exact effect I predicted or arguing over the exact wording of things as we write our paper; yet, it is both incredibly fun and exciting to be able to do this kind of work everyday. 

Eshan Mehrotra, ’21

Be Open to Joy

You know when Taylor Swift killed the old Taylor Swift and became the newer broodier Taylor Swift? Basically, that happened to me over the course of four years. (I’d like to think I’m still the happy go lucky freshman that came in with all the ambition in the world, but maybe I’m a little more cynical now too). I came in as a biology major. I am not. I came in with 2 minors. I have none. I came being deadest on going to medical school. I am applying to graduate programs and some gap year jobs. But I am okay with where I am. In fact, I have never been happier.

Almost every plan I had coming into school has changed thus far, but it has only happened because I was open to new experiences and sought out joy. I switched into the chemistry major because I disliked the cutthroat culture I experienced in the biology major. Although the classes were plenty interesting and the professors were passionate, I found myself in an environment that rather than nurtured me, subjected me to toxicity. I dropped my minors because I did not enjoy the classes I took and the regiment associated with them. I officially stopped being pre-med 4 weeks ago because I knew med school wouldn’t bring me joy. So it goes.

In my time here at Cornell, I joined clubs, e-boards, mini-cults, worked campus jobs, participated in social activism, and research labs. Some of these things I only did because my friends asked that I branch out, but I frequently became more passionate about them than ever imagined! Not only was I a student, but a person, who now reflecting on my time spent here, has lived a very fulfilling and joyful Cornell career. In fact, a student would be the last thing I would classify myself as. So, I encourage anyone reading this to do the unorthodox, branch out, explore, take the scenic route because your life will change, and you will find more joy than ever imagined.

Antonio Saporito, ’21

The Art of Inquiry

My experience in classes has largely been dominated by a reticence to speak up, even when there’s a really interesting concept that I want to know more about. My initial thought is always, “My question is probably super dumb, and everyone already knows the answer except me.” This, in turn, leads to me spending a significant amount of time outside of class self-studying and combing through textbooks, and every time I finally answer my own question, I realize that I could have saved so much time and peace of mind if I had simply mustered the courage to just ask my question. But like clockwork, I always find myself returning to this inefficient cycle, convincing myself that no one would want to bother themselves with my questions.

Thankfully, a recent research experience forced me to break this cycle. This summer, I conducted virtual research in a group whose work combined one subject I had only just started to learn (inorganic chemistry) and one subject I knew nothing about (quantum information science). Before my official first day, my graduate student mentor sent me a few papers to read to introduce me to the group’s work, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of unfamiliar terms, figures, and concepts. There was simply too much I didn’t know. This time around, self-studying wasn’t going to work even if I tried, because the only thing that I knew was that I didn’t know where to begin.

When I met with my graduate student mentor and voiced some of these concerns, he responded with some advice along these lines: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The worst thing that could happen is that you ask a question and the other person doesn’t know the answer, which, more often than not, will motivate that person to revisit and strengthen their knowledge base so that they can be better prepared for that question in the future.” Call it a simplification if you’d like, but it seems to me that in the end, asking questions will always result in a net gain of knowledge. Either the person you ask can give you an answer, increasing your knowledge, or your question prompts that person to find out the answer, increasing their knowledge. So what’s there to lose in just asking?

With this in mind, I forced myself out of my comfort zone and reached out to various group members with questions about unfamiliar concepts or about interesting points presented in their research. I pushed past the worry about whether I came off as too inexperienced. I pushed past the worry about whether my questions were “advanced” enough. I pushed past the worry about whether the graduate students would grow exasperated with having to explain “simple” concepts. And I’m glad I did. Every time, I found that the graduate students that I asked were more than willing — even eager — to answer my questions and then ask if I had any more questions. Asking, asking, and asking again made a world of difference in my virtual research this summer. I was able to pick up new information and make sense of current work in the field with much more ease, speed, and retention than I had ever before with just self-studying.

I believe that science, at its purest, is the art of inquiry. Science begins and ends with what, why, how, how much, when, and every other question word under the sun, and I believe that it’s this very curiosity that draws you, the current or prospective chemistry major reading this, and me to science again and again. As you continue on in your scientific journey, I hope you find inspiration, not shame, in asking questions.

Faith Chen, ’22

Getting to Know Grad Students

Today I’d like to share some ideas that may seem less immediate than the mechanics of course enrollment and schedule planning, but have been a crucial part of my experience as a chemistry student at Cornell. I believe that one of the most informative resources in navigating the chemistry major does not come in the form of webpages or departmental brochures, but from the graduate students in the department.

Whether we recognize it or not, we’re actually surrounded by graduate students as we walk through the halls of Baker Lab. Although it might seem intimidating to talk to a grad student in settings such as office hours, I have found that grad students can offer a whole world of advice once that initial barrier of hesitation is overcome. Many of the grad students in the department are more than happy to tell stories about their research, explain what decisions brought them to where they are in their educations, and recall stories from their undergraduate days. It’s important to recognize that they’ve already solved many of the exact same problems that we’re encountering as undergraduates, and that many grad students are more than willing to help us figure those sorts of things out. Just like we are told to build professional relationships with our professors and advisors, I would suggest that the scope of an undergrad’s chemistry network at Cornell should also extend to graduate students.

It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to get along with their TAs, but it’s important to continue that relationship after the semester ends. For example, I regularly find myself turning to some of my old TAs for advice by arranging to meet over lunch or on the phone. It is actually surprisingly easy to get in contact with a former TA, and it is even easier to get in contact with grad students working with you in a research lab setting. After I joined my current research group, I was surprised by how quickly and how genuinely I bonded with the junior and senior students in the lab. As mentioned above, many grad students have travelled the same paths that we are currently following, so I know that they can provide me with authentic perspectives on topics such as preparing for graduate school or envisioning what sort of career I would ultimately be most happy in. I do feel as though there is an understandable, but semi-arbitrary, barrier between the two populations of chemistry students, but there are many rewards to be reaped by undergrads if this barrier is bridged.

While I am only speaking from my experience, I strongly feel that there is currently not a strong culture of forming the undergraduate-graduate student bonds described above. The perspectives of graduate students are not only authentic, but they also in fact very accessible. They have been through the entire undergraduate experience, and can share their successes and failures with a sense of retrospect and maturity that we undergraduates may not be able to access. My advice to those looking for answers to questions about their current and future studies and professional goals is to actively seek these valuable perspectives.

Jon Meinhardt, ’22

Into the Unknown

To me, nothing is scarier than not knowing what comes next. So, I try to plan everything out as best as I can. That means that this summer was the time for me to start the graduate school application process. After looking at over 40 graduate programs in chemistry, I had found maybe 15 that I could possibly see myself thriving in (that is, if I got in). But the more I looked into these amazing programs, the more worried I became that I would not get in anywhere, so I started looking at other graduate programs and stumbled upon pharmacology.

I hadn’t even heard of pharmacology before, but I learned that it is the study of how drugs interact with the body. That sounded SO COOL. As I dug deeper, I got simultaneously more and less excited. More excited because pharmacology is fascinating and I could see myself studying it, yet less excited because again, I didn’t think I would get in anywhere. 

Granted, I haven’t even started writing my application essays. I haven’t sent my transcript or GRE score anywhere. So I don’t know if I will even get in anywhere. But I’ve learned to be okay with that. These are uncertain times, for the world as a whole and for me as an individual. So what if I don’t get into a chemistry or pharmacology PhD program? Won’t that be the end of the world? No, no it won’t be.

I learned two things this summer. First, I learned to be open to more possibilities. I had no idea what pharmacology was before I saw it on the University of Wisconsin’s graduate school page, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities. I know now that I have to be able to explore new potential paths. The second thing I learned is to be okay with the uncertainty that comes with applying to graduate school, and more broadly, the uncertainty that comes along with being a young adult getting ready to face my future. I’ve learned that I can’t worry about what might be; as I think we all have learned this year, things can change at a moment’s notice. It’s important to be able to prepare for the future, but at the same time, it’s perfectly alright to just take a step into the unknown and see where it takes you.

Casandra Moisanu, ’21