Getting to Know UVA Chemistry’s Newest PhDs

Getting to Know UVA Chemistry’s Newest PhDs

Amelia Reid, UVA ChemSciComm

The last year has had a lasting impact on our world as a whole and how we as scientists do our work together. As a result, the UVA Chemistry Department, along with scientists all over the world, have had to adjust the way we interact both professionally and socially. While the pandemic and research shutdowns affected all of us, the department’s newly minted PhDs have a unique perspective on a graduate school experience that was filled with the highs of research successes and the achievements of UVA Athletics, as well as the lows of lab shutdowns during a pivotal time. To help more junior and future graduate students who have never known a ‘normal’ time at UVA, we asked some of the newest graduates to share their advice and experiences.

  1. Why did you choose UVA for graduate school?

Philip Hahn (Hilinski lab): I was taken by the history and beauty of the UVA grounds during my visit here. Having the mountains close by for hiking and a large city in DC close were also big perks for me

Asa Nichols (Machan lab): I chose UVA for graduate school because the professors and students were down to Earth when I visited, and I didn’t want to leave the mountains. 

Tim Ware (Hsu): I primarily chose to stay at UVA for graduate school (I matriculated from the undergraduate Chemistry program at UVA the previous year) because of its proximity to my family, convenience of living, scientific diversity (large number of active departments), and availability to funding opportunities.

  1. How did the pandemic impact your research?

Shelby Hooe (Machan lab): The pandemic broadened my research skills set. During the pandemic I focused on learning computational chemistry methods, as well as further developing my writing skills.

Jason Borgus (Venton lab): The hardest thing about the pandemic and research was the lack of interaction with my lab colleagues. I could see them in Zoom during meeting or send emails, but those quick lab questions and hallway conversations weren’t happening anymore and it slowed the research down practically and creatively. It also made it impossible for me, personally, to do in-person lab work due to my wife being immunocompromised at the time. We were able to adapt and come up with projects that I could complete from home, but I would say that it did stifle the research a bit.

Tiffany Lane (Landers lab): Since I was in my fourth year, the pandemic allowed me more time to write manuscripts and get pieces of my thesis together. I was also fortunate to be on a project that started due to Covid, which added more to my thesis. It was really nice to have a break, but made it much better when I was able to get back into the laboratory.

  1. What motivates you in lab?

Jason Borgus (Venton lab): Answering questions that we don’t know the answer to. Doing things that no one has done. Finding solutions that will help people and improve medical outcomes.

Tiffany Lane (Landers lab): The biggest motivation is the thrill of finding a solution to a problem I’ve been working at for months, studied for years, and am passionate about. Chasing that ‘ah-ha’ moment and the excitement when it happens and to get to the next moment is what motivates me in the lab.

Philip Hahn (Hilinski lab): I have always been in chemistry with the desire to one day work as a medicinal chemist. The idea that I could help create something that could change someone's life for the better is what drives me. I have a lot of trouble motivating myself when working on methodology projects, however, in my second year I got to work on a drug discovery collaboration that completely confirmed that this is what I want to do with my life. Whenever I am feeling unmotivated, I remind myself that everything I am doing is towards that goal.

  1. How can graduate students get the most out of their time at UVA?

Shelby Hooe (Machan lab): I got more out of my time at UVA than I could have ever imagined. The only advice I have for graduate students to help them get the most out of their time at UVA is to work hard, play hard, embrace every failure, and always be wary of the comparisons you allow yourself to make. Everyone one is different of course but for me personally, these were the things that I always kept fresh in my mind during graduate school: 1) Working hard at work worth doing is never considered wasted time, 2) Never turn down the chance for a night out with friends and/or family, 3) Welcome every failure with open arms because failure is what builds a path to success, and 4) Individuals are more than what can be seen on their CV, resume, or transcript so attempting to compare oneself to anyone else via that method will always be limited, and ultimately inaccurate.

Jason Borgus (Venton lab):  Utilize the resources available to you. Enroll in programs like PhD Plus. Get involved with the Center for Teaching Excellence or LEAD. Go to conferences. Take time to talk to the people on your committee, not just when you’re in their class or during orals. Research is important, yes, but you are also building a resume and a network for when you graduate. Take advantage of that.

Spenser Simpson (Harman lab): My best advice for getting as much out of their time is to work hard and play hard. Make sure you spend the time in lab and give the effort and time that lab deserves, but one needs to become a member of the community. There are many ways to do this, and I will share mine. I joined the local hockey and soccer leagues in town. This allowed me to grow a support system that wasn’t science based and allowed me to experience Charlottesville and not just the chemistry building.

  1. What are you the proudest of from your time in graduate school?

Philip Hahn (Hilinski lab): I am most proud of the drug discovery project that I worked on and the patent application that has come out of it. There is some really exciting data that these compounds and their biological target could be effective in treating glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain cancer with one of the poorest prognoses in oncology.

Tim Ware (Hsu): Gaining the confidence to think/work independently for my research. While there are surely several events/milestones I could point out being proud of, I feel that all of them, in part, benefited from the ability to think and act independent of direct instruction. Starting out in graduate school many of us are afraid to fail and therefore we act too cautiously or rely too much on others’ experiences and suggestions. Although this is by no means a bad thing to carry on later in your graduate career, there’s something gratifying about being the one that imparts that insight and make those judgments. Anyone can learn a scientific technique, but to be a scientist you have to think logically about how and when to best apply that knowledge to answer questions.

Spenser Simpson (Harman lab): Honestly, at this moment, I would say I am proudest about graduating on time. I know here in 5-10 years there will be other things that I am prouder of, but with the pandemic still affecting our lives and costing so much research time, the fact that I was still able to graduate in the 5-year time span makes me proud.

  1. What is your favorite memory from graduate school?

Tim Ware (Hsu): Professionally, finishing the Candidacy exam, even without knowing the outcome until a few days later. Personally, when UVA won the men’s basketball NCAA Final Four game against Auburn because the celebration from the Charlottesville community on that night was more spontaneous and sincere than the Championship game.

Shelby Hooe (Machan lab): My favorite memory from graduate school was traveling to Germany with my PI for a collaborative research event. It was my first time outside of the United States and it was an absolutely amazing experience. 

Spenser Simpson (Harman lab): My favorite memories would have to be my lab and the departments social events. These times are some of my fondest memories because I got to experience my friends and colleagues outside of work. I got to know them as people and make some friends that I hope I will have for the rest of my life.

  1. What did you enjoy doing around Charlottesville?

Asa Nichols (Machan lab): I enjoyed hiking, fly fishing, backpacking, and going to athletic events (especially basketball).

Tiffany Lane (Landers lab): I most enjoyed all the activities around Charlottesville. Each weekend was never dull, I was able to grab a few friends to go hiking, swimming, intermural sports, concerts, games, wineries, breweries, etc.

Shelby Hooe (Machan lab): I think Charlottesville is a place that definitely has more hidden gems than any place I have ever lived. I personally enjoyed venturing to all the local breweries and cideries in the Charlottesville and surrounding area. I also enjoyed hiking in the local area on the weekends. 

  1. I couldn’t have survived graduate school without…

Asa Nichols (Machan lab): I couldn’t have survived graduate school without my friends and family outside of the lab; especially my wife and dog.

Tiffany Lane (Landers lab): ….the support of my friends, family, and colleagues. One thing I’ve learned is work/life balance and mental health. Graduate school has a lot of ups and downs and can drive a person crazy. It was nice to have people to talk with or hang out with to be able to decompress and mentally check out for a few hours.

Philip Hahn (Hilinski lab): I couldn't have survived graduate school my wonderful fiancé supporting me

  1. What is your next step now that you have completed your PhD?

Shelby Hooe (Machan lab): Now that I have completed my PhD, I have begun a postdoctoral position researching bio-nanomaterials at the Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C.

Jason Borgus (Venton lab):I am off to The University of Virginia’s College at Wise as a Visiting Professor to teach analytical chemistry to undergraduates. Hopefully, I will be able to move into the tenure track position afterwards.

Tiffany Lane (Landers lab): I have accepted a position as a Postdoctoral fellow in the Visiting Scientist program with ORISE at the FBI in Quantico, VA.

Philip Hahn (Hilinski lab):I am wrapping up loose ends for a few projects in the lab while I apply to industry positions an med chem and ag chem

Asa Nichols (Machan lab): I’m currently working as a postdoc at Los Alamos National Lab in MPA-11 (materials synthesis and integrated devices). 

Tim Ware (Hsu): Working as a postdoc and using that time to decide which vein of research to pursue (academic vs. industry/public). 

Spenser Simpson (Harman lab): I plan on beginning a post doc in the medical imaging and radiology department under Dr. Kiel Neumann at the end of the month. I will be doing organic synthesis with radioactive compounds to develop imaging agents.