Get to Know WIC: Grace Putka Ahlqvist

Grace grew up in Columbus, Ohio and earned her BA in chemistry at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She then worked in infant formula product development at Abbott Laboratories for a year before starting grad school at MIT in the fall of 2017. Now a third-year student in the Jamison group, Grace’s research focuses on the development of novel organic reaction methodology using continuous flow technology as an enabling tool. She lives off-campus with her husband Jakob and cat Burt, and enjoys cooking, baking, and singing in a choir in her spare time.

Why did you pick MIT?
My undergrad research advisor did his PhD in the Danheiser group at MIT, and he encouraged me to apply. After I visited all my options, MIT was the school I felt I could see myself at, and Boston was the city I could see myself calling home for 5+ years.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I love how the city is big and small at the same time–big enough to have tons of things to do, but small enough to get around easily. Also, the huge amount of colleges and universities in the area make it a really unique place to be a grad student, and a really fun place to live.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
I was surprised by how important my off-campus connections are. It’s been great for me to have friends and hobbies outside of MIT, both to remind myself that the world is bigger than building 18 and to really feel like I’m making a home here.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
I went to a small liberal arts college, and initially it was really challenging to keep up in my classes when many of my classmates had already taken graduate level coursework and I hadn’t. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that I had been working in food science for a year, and hadn’t thought about reaction mechanisms in quite a while! While coursework was challenging, I got through it by studying with good friends (often finding out that everybody else was struggling as much as I was). Ultimately, I managed to do well in my classes and, more importantly, learned a lot!

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
I really, really loved teaching. I was a TA for 5.13 (Organic II) in the fall and 5.12 (Organic I) in the spring, and leading recitations and interacting with students was definitely the highlight of my year.

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
I lived off-campus with my husband my first year, so I was worried about making friends when everybody else was living together in the dorms. Thankfully, I made a lot of great friends in my cohort and always felt included even though I was living off campus. I’m still really close with people from my cohort, especially friends I TA’d with as a first year, even though most of us joined different groups.

Why did you join WIC?
I was active with a lot of student organizing in college, and when I got to MIT I was looking for a way to get involved and meet people outside my group and cohort. WIC was a great way to make friends and also have the chance to organize programming and advocate for grad students in the department.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
Definitely the mentorship program. I think it’s a really awesome, low-stress way to connect to an older grad student and get support during an often challenging time in your first year as you adjust to grad school. I’ve been active as a mentor for the past two years in addition to having my own mentor as a first year, and I’m thrilled that the department is expanding the program to serve students of all genders for the incoming class of 2020.

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
Baking! I actually had a sourdough starter for a while before the shutdown, so that’s been getting a lot of exercise as I experiment with new recipes like pretzels, muffins, and bagels in addition to my regular bread and pizza dough. It’s a nice way to slow down and focus on something not work-related that still feels productive.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Stephanie Smelyansky

Stephanie is a first year graduate student and member of WIC. Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, she went to undergrad at Yale University, where she double majored in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Chemistry. Here at MIT, Stephanie is part of the Kiessling lab.

Why did you pick MIT?
I picked MIT because I felt a really good rapport with the faculty and other students here, plus I was incredibly excited about the research going on.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I love the Charles River. I run along the Charles at least four times a week, and regardless of the weather, the view is always beautiful.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
I’m pretty good at navigating, but even after living here for seven months, I still get lost! Boston is a pretty old city, so there are tons of tiny streets and alleys, and the streets don’t follow a predictable grid pattern, so it’s pretty hard to get to know the city without Google Maps.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
The biggest challenge has been balancing school, research, teaching, and my own sanity. Trying to do research while still taking classes and teaching an undergrad course is really time-consuming and I was definitely quite sleep deprived for the first few weeks of grad school while I was trying to figure out how to navigate my different responsibilities.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
The people! I’m usually really self-conscious so I have a hard time making friends, but I felt an instant connection with so many people in my cohort and we quickly became good friends!

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
We can switch from talking science to getting lit in a matter of seconds.

Why did you join WIC?
I joined WIC because I’m passionate about creating a space for women and minorities in STEM to connect with one another and support one another. When we support one another, we are uplifting everyone in our community, including ourselves.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
Galentine’s day!

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
I’ve been FaceTiming with my grandparents a lot. We usually FaceTime every Sunday, but since I have *slightly* more free time now, I’ve been talking to them every other day. I miss them a lot, and seeing that they’re happy and healthy makes me feel much better about being so far away from my family.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Kayla Storme

Originally from Lisle, IL, Kayla received her B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her A.A.S. in Operations Engineering from Joliet Junior College. She worked as an R&D technician before joining the Swager (Chem) and Smith (ChemE) labs at MIT in 2019 to pursue her PhD in Chemistry/Polymers and Soft Matter.

Why did you pick MIT?
The people and interactions are what drew me to MIT. There is such a large and welcoming community among the graduate students at MIT and there are numerous opportunities for collaborations in and out of the Chemistry Department. There are also many social and professional events that make MIT feel like much more than home for me.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
The people in this area have a certain energy that is almost unmatched anywhere else. There is also beautiful architecture around the city and a lot of history worth exploring. I also enjoy the walkability of both Cambridge and Boston!

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
Even though it is a small city, there are always people outside exploring or enjoying time with friends. Its very easy to meet people and most people I have met are open-minded at MIT and when I’m out exploring the city.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
Figuring out where each building is. I’ve been in many of MIT’s buildings for classes, research, or other reasons–but I still haven’t been to/know all of them. I doubt I’ve been to half of them.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
Finding my own community with the many people I interact with. One of the most positively emotional days during my first year was Thanksgiving, when I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in my on-campus apartment and nearly 20+ people (friends and friends of friends) showed up to enjoy dinner and fun games. I intend to do it again this year!

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
I can talk to anyone in it, despite our backgrounds, and they feel comfortable talking with me. I feel like everyone in my cohort wants to see me succeed and I want to see them do the same. If I’m having a bad day, I can lean on any of them for support and I am comfortable returning the favor to them when they need it.

Why did you join WIC?
I believe in the goals of WIC and have experienced times in my past where I needed support from women in similar positions as myself, but I did not have any. I believe it is important to maintain this student group for the networking and resources they provide women in the department and I wish to contribute my time to help in doing so.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
I really enjoyed Galentine’s Day 2020, but, overall, I appreciate the mentor program WIC has established. I get along really well with my WIC mentor, I can talk to her about anything, and she gives some very spot-on advice whenever I ask for it. She is also from Illinois, so we have some things in common to reminisce about, too!

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
Making sure I go outside (if it isn’t raining or snowing) at least once a day for 15+ minutes.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Victoria Marando

Victoria is a second year graduate student in the Kiessling group and an active member of WIC. She is from a small town near Toronto and she did her undergraduate work at McMaster University, taking time to complete internships at a biotech company in Montreal and a research group in Stockholm in the course of earning her degree.

Why did you pick MIT?
I chose MIT because of the community of graduate students. It felt like a supportive environment to learn and develop as a scientist.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
Biking along the Charles River.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
The wildly active intramural hockey league at MIT!

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
My biggest challenge has been balancing work and life! It is very easy to get consumed by all of the exciting opportunities related to our work but it is important to take time for things to enjoy outside of lab!

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
My favourite part of first year was sailing on the Charles at lunch in the summer.

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
I loved that everyone was eager to hang out outside of lab, coming up with creative ways to have fun!

Why did you join WIC?
To meet more women in the department.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
The MIT-Merck Women in Chemistry Symposium.*

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
Spending too much time knitting.

*Victoria organized this joint symposium with Merck last year and was also organizing it again this year. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented it from being held this year as-scheduled.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Erica Tsai

Erica is a fourth year grad student in the Buchwald Group at MIT and a member of WIC. Originally from the East Bay Area in California, she’s been on the East Coast for nearly 8 years now, after having migrated to Princeton for her undergrad. She’s an avid amateur dancer, Animal Crossings fanatic, experimental baker, and people lover.

Why did you pick MIT?
I chose MIT for a number of reasons! Beyond the research, I felt a connection with the people I met here, and really loved Boston/Cambridge. I also really appreciated the infrastructure that the Institute provides.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I’m a big fan of how easy it is to get places via public transport! While the T isn’t perfect, it’s a big step up from the sparse system available in the suburbs of San Francisco. I also love all of the local small restaurants.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
I’ve never been in such a cerebral city as a whole, and it’s been awesome to just be going about my business off campus (before COVID-19 of course) and hear so many conversations about quantum physics, drug development, etc.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
I’ve always been involved in a bunch of different things and divided my time between research, classes, friends, clubs, and more, so concentrating on focusing my time on one thing was (and still is) definitely a point of improvement!

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
I really enjoyed living in the dorms and getting to know my cohort that lived there too! A bunch of us would walk to class together in the mornings, which is something I miss now that we all live throughout the city.

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
I love how communicative and supportive we all are. I’ve never felt any significant tension among our entire year. I think this was something established really early on; we (the Organic division) were all very transparent about which groups we were interested in, and effectively sorted ourselves and all got our first choice. We also all met up this past winter after our 4th year proposals to celebrate, despite it not being an “examination.”

Why did you join WIC?
I’ve always wanted to give back to the communities I’m in, and I really respected the drive of the members in WIC. Beyond hosting events and socials for the women in the department, WIC has been exceptionally proactive about talking to the administration to improve/expand upon programs (such as being a major player in the [Statement of Values]).

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
I really love the Mentorship Program (which is now department-wide)! It was really helpful to me to have someone I could go to for anything as a first year, and I love meeting members of the new class each year as a mentor.

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
I’ve been playing an unhealthy amount of Animal Crossing, but I’ve also been cooking and reading a lot more now that I’m at home!

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Mikaila Hoffman

Mikaila is a second year grad student and member of the WIC outreach committee. She’s from Pittsburgh, PA, and went to undergrad at Oberlin College (in the middle of nowhere Ohio). Here at MIT, Mikaila works for Prof. Gabriela Schlau-Cohen studying conformational dynamics of a bacterial transmembrane receptor protein using single-molecule spectroscopy. She is excited about applying physical chemistry tools and frameworks to understand complex biological systems.

Why did you pick MIT?
I picked MIT because I felt it had the best (and most exciting) options for pursuing biophysical research, and I got along well with the current and admitted students.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I really like living near a river and well-maintained outdoor areas, like Boston Common or the Esplanade. It’s also cool to live in a city that attracts fun concerts and events.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
I was surprised at how easy it was to get involved in extracurricular activities and how many graduate students participate! I’ve really enjoyed meeting people through intramural soccer and painting classes.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
My biggest challenge has been adjusting from being at a small liberal arts school to a huge research institution. Classes were challenging because I didn’t feel like I had the same background that other students who went to bigger schools did, which led to a lot of self-doubt. Joining a research group and finding a supportive group of friends have both helped me work through this challenge.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
My favorite part of my first year was that, by the end of it, I had found a support network of friends and colleagues at MIT that made working here more fun!

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
My favorite thing about my cohort is how much fun we have together (and how committed we are to not talking about science when we’re socializing)!

Why did you join WIC?
I joined WIC mainly because I wanted to help with outreach events, but also because the idea of being part of a bigger community of women scientists was really appealing.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
I’ve really enjoyed the Galentine’s Day event each year because it’s brought out people’s fun and crafty sides!

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
I’ve been doing a lot of yoga, but an equal (if not greater) amount of playing Animal Crossing. Who could say no to creating their own island paradise at a time like this??

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Jessica Beard

Jessica is a third year grad student and the current secretary of WIC. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and received her bachelor’s in chemistry in 2017 from Northwestern University, where she was an undergrad researcher in Prof. SonBinh Nguyen’s lab.  Now in the Swager group at MIT, she works on fluorescence-based sensors for environmental pollutants.

Why did you pick MIT?
There were a few reasons, but a large part of it was I really liked a lot of the students I met during my visit and it seemed like a community I could fit in at (which has turned out to be accurate). I also really liked the Boston area.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
The history, for sure! I love walking around and seeing the old architecture, and how even in super modern areas you can see glimpses of the past. I also like that I don’t need a car to get around (the drivers are nuts). I’m also a big fan of the local breweries here.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
That I can’t seem to buy fried cheese curds here? (Or as I’ve always called them, just “cheese curds.”) I never thought of cheese curds as being particularly midwestern, but they apparently just don’t exist here, which is a bummer because they pair well with beer.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
I’ve definitely struggled with finding a balance between being confident in my own abilities as a chemist, and being aware that I still have a lot to learn from others. I can have a hard time being confident enough to defend myself when I’m right without being too stubborn to listen when I’m wrong. Both self-doubt and overconfidence have led me to waste time, and I’m still working on finding a happy medium.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
Probably TA-ing, actually. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work and I’m happy that I don’t have that responsibility anymore, but TA-ing is likely to be the most time you’ll get to interact with the undergrads at MIT. I really liked trying to convince the students that organic chemistry didn’t exist solely to ruin their GPA, and it was rewarding to see students I’d helped in office hours slowly improve over the term. Also, MIT undergrads are a weird bunch and getting to know them is An Experience.

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
That a bunch of us still get on stage and sing Taylor Swift’s “Style” for karaoke at the department holiday party every year. At this past party, I couldn’t even talk (laryngitis) but still got pulled onto the stage for the song.

Why did you join WIC?
I initially came to meetings because a few of my friends were, but I kept coming and became more involved because I wanted to be active in supporting the women of the department. I’ve really benefited from the mentorship program (thanks, Cassie!) and the orals support, and I love the social activities; I wanted to help continue all these things.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
Our experiment-filled day camp for girls, Scientist for a Day! I’ve helped out with it twice, and while children are exhausting, there’s also something really refreshing about seeing young girls be curious and have fun with chemistry. (Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we’re going to have to delay this summer program until the world returns to semi-normal.)

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
Annoying my cat, Hera, and reading books.  Also, wine.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Cassie Zentner

Cassie is a Pittsburgh native who received her B.A. in Chemistry in 2013 from Oberlin College. Cassie moved to Boston after graduation and joined QD Vision, Inc. as an R&D Chemist. She then joined C2Sense, Inc. as an R&D Scientist, developing chemiresistive gas sensors for food, agriculture, and industrial safety. In Fall 2016, Cassie joined the Swager lab as a graduate student in organic chemistry, and is currently a 4th year student in the group studying complex emulsion systems. Cassie has been a part of the WIC board for 4 years and has served as the Mentorship Chair (and various other roles) for 3 years.

Why did you pick MIT?
I plan to return to the startup world after graduate school, and MIT and the Boston area is the perfect place for entrepreneurship. I also loved living here and it was hard to imagine moving away for school.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
My favorite place in the city is the Boston Public Library. I have written all my manuscripts and reports sitting there. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by books? I have also found a couple diners and bars that feel like “neighborhood” places where everyone knows you. It’s nice to get that small town feel in the city.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
You almost never hear the Boston accent in the city. If it wasn’t for our lab manager, I could go a week without hearing a Boston accent and I live in Boston.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
Since I did not come straight from undergrad to grad school, I had forgotten what it means to study. Trying to get back into those habits and doing homework again was eye opening. Being thrown into Organic Tutorial after not thinking about reaction mechanisms for 3 years was a challenge to say the least.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
I really enjoyed getting to know my labmates! And it was nice having them there for support during the year.

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
My cohort are all super easy to get along with and that helped when we tried to work through homework problems or studied together. But I have to give a special shout-out to Katie McGeough, who has been there for me from orientation.

Why did you join WIC?
I had such a fantastic WIC mentor (hello Julia!) that I wanted to know more about the organization that helped me out so much in my first year. I ended up starting to come to meetings in my first semester and have been working with WIC ever since.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
As the Mentorship chair, this may not be much of a shock that I truly love the WIC mentorship program and am so happy to have been a part of it. Outside of the mentorship program, I really like Scientist for a Day, which is an outreach event for 5-6 grade girls to come and do hands-on science!

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
Is it okay to say wine? Because wine and reading are a lovely combination while sitting at home. But also organizing virtual game and D&D nights to stay connected to people.

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Christine Isabella

Christine is a fifth year in the Kiessling group and current co-president of WIC. She grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and did her undergrad at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. As an undergrad, she played varsity soccer, majored in molecular and cellular biology, and grew interested in carbohydrates through her thesis research. After undergrad, Christine worked as a technician at the University of Washington for three years and built a love for exploring the outdoors. She then started her graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she joined Prof. Laura Kiessling’s research group to follow her passion for carbohydrates. In the Kiessling Group, she studies the recognition of microbial glycans by human lectins. Christine moved to MIT with the Kiessling group in 2017, and has loved the new collaborations and new directions it has allowed for her research!

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I really like how bikeable Cambridge and Boston are. I love the local breweries and restaurants, and the nearby mountains and beaches!

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
The number of different backgrounds people in our program come from, be it cultural, geographical, research experience, or life experience.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
Moving in the middle of grad school was a unique challenge that few can relate to. It was a big change and I had to adjust to the often intense atmosphere of MIT while also facing a decent level of imposter syndrome. However, I have found that many people face these challenges and they can be uniting.

Why did you join WIC?
I joined WIC to meet people, have more community, and be involved in the department initially. I became a co-president of WIC because I was excited to have more involvement in our events and behind the scenes interactions with our department leaders, while contributing to the continual evolution of our student group!

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
I have enjoyed our collaborative events with other groups and departments: Our lunch with Women in Chemical Engineering on academic careers, the lunch with CADI on intersectionality, and the department-wide celebration of International Women’s Day.

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
I have been working on making a habit of a morning yoga practice and have taken a lot of baths!

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!

Get to Know WIC: Katherine Taylor

Katherine is a third year in the Kiessling group and current co-president of WIC. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Katherine completed undergrad at UChicago working with Professor Scott Snyder towards the total synthesis of brominated labdane natural products. Here at MIT, she focuses on structure function relationships of bacterial polysaccharides.

Why did you pick MIT?
I picked MIT for the wide range of research opportunities and different types of groups. I also love the Boston area, it is really compact, and there is a ton of research going on. It’s really exciting to have so many seminars and supergroups so close by.

What are your favorite things about the Cambridge/Boston area?
I love how close we are to so many different types of nature. In Chicago and St. Louis, everything is flat. Here, we’re less than two hours from mountains, beautiful beaches, and other really cool cities. When I’m not in lab, there’s always somewhere exciting to go outside.

What’s something that surprised you about life here?
I was surprised about the art classes that MIT offers. They offer oil painting, ceramics, drawing, and photography. I take ceramic classes, and the studio access and different community are really important to my MIT experience. Going to the studio gives me time to think, either about my science or about nothing at all, and serves as a welcome respite from lab frustrations.

Real Talk: What’s been your biggest challenge since coming to MIT?
I often get frustrated with my research progress, and it can ruin even exciting moments in lab. Sometimes when I finally get an experiment to work, instead of feeling excited, I am frustrated that I hadn’t figured it out earlier or more quickly. I’ve spent a lot of time working on how I relate to my research and science at large, and my advisor and colleagues have been incredibly helpful as I develop resilience as a scientist.

What was your favorite part of your first year at MIT?
I really loved TA-ing 5.12 (organic chemistry). My students were so engaged and I had a great time preparing lectures and practice problems. I loved getting to know my students more personally as well. Three of the students from the class now work in our group!

What is your favorite thing about your cohort?
I love how engaged everyone was! We had a ton of themed parties (“Taco Tuesday,” Mardis Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, etc) and those were a ton of fun. It was nice to see people from all divisions, and go through our first year together, outside of the university.

Why did you join WIC?
I joined WIC because I really value communities by and for women. The commitment to providing opportunities, both social, mentoring, and professional for women in the department is my favorite part of the organization.

What’s your favorite WIC program or event?
We did a plant potting event last year that I loved! Everyone got to go home with one or two new plant friends for their desk or work.

What’s your go-to for self-care in quarantine?
1. Baking sourdough (like everyone else)
2. Drawing and painting (oil, watercolor, etc)
3. Chilling out with my cat!

 

Our series “Get to Know WIC” was inspired by MIT CADI, who did a similar series for their members. Thanks for the idea!