Graduate Student Spotlight: Tommy Harrelson

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Which school did you attend for undergrad and what was your major?  

I went to Johns Hopkins Unversity, and double-majored in Chemical/Biomolecular Engineering and Biology.

What research are you currently working on? 

I basically try to map out structure-property relationships for a range of organic semiconductor materials using various computational methods. Organic semiconductors are a class of carbon-based materials, loosely resembling flexible plastic sheets, that have interesting electrical properties (e.g. high conductivity). The ultimate goal of this work is to predict materials with superior electrical properties (i.e. make smaller transistors, brighter displays, etc.).

What other interesting activities have you been involved in during your time here at UC Davis? 

I was treasurer of the GSO for 2 years, so I had input on the department social events, such as planning happy hours and other department outings. I also participate in intramurals for grad students and faculty/staff. I mostly play soccer, but dabble in softball and flag football. 

What has been one of the highlights of your time here at UC Davis? 

Winning the 2015 Fall grad/faculty league soccer intramural championship to get the free T-shirt that all champions deserve. The competition was fierce but I'm proud of the team for pulling through in the end. All jokes aside, the main highlight of my time at UC Davis has been the feeling that other high-level scientists/professors accept me as their peer (as a student, this doesn't happen immediately, you have to prove yourself); they value my scientific insight, and we can discuss non-science related things.

What is your plan after graduation? 

I want to stay in a research setting, so it is very likely that I will do a post-doc after graduation. That can be at a university, national lab, private research lab, or company, but I would like to remain in Northern California. There are exciting opportunities out there for people in my field (computational chemistry), so I am looking forward to the future.

What advice would you give to others who are interested in pursuing graduate school / to first year undergraduate students? 

The following will only apply to those interested in pursuing a STEM career (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), since my experience has only been with STEM disciplines.

My primary advice to a prospective student is to prepare to work hard and have a plan for dealing with stressful times. Graduate school is not only educationally challenging, but also economically, socially, and emotionally challenging. You have to enjoy doing research (doing experiments, etc.), and learning new things, which sounds easy, but undergraduate courses typically only teach up until about the 1950s, so you have 70 years of research articles to catch up on! Your research project will be on the fringe of scientific progress, which means your project will be fundamentally different from projects you did in undergrad. Undergrad projects have defined solutions, your graduate project will not, which means very few people can even tell you the best way to approach the project. The only way to find a solution is to read papers and try many different experiments (many of which will fail), which takes a lot of time and effort. It's not easy. With all the hard work comes stress, so make sure you pace yourself. In grad school, it's easy to fall into the mindset that you need to work all the time because you feel like you're behind. Don't do this, grad school is more of a marathon than a sprint. Try to schedule time to relax where you won't think about research at all, which will help you recharge and be more productive overall. While grad school is stressful and tough, if you want to be the best research scientist/engineer you can be, there is no replacement for graduate school: It gives you the opportunity to acquire a breadth of knowledge and the freedom to explore ideas -- an opportunity that you won't find in any position right out of undergrad. 

For first year undergraduates: use college as an opportunity to explore your interests, find out what you like and don't like (both socially and scholastically). For example, I went into undergrad thinking I was going to a biological researcher, but it turned out I didn't actually like to do biological research in practice. I randomly took a class that sounded cool: Computational BIology, and the computational aspects of the work really resonated with me, and I figured that was what I wanted to do as a career (which led me to this point). I would never have known any of that unless I tried getting experience doing research, or randomly taken that class. So, go explore, and don't be worried about emailing professors about opportunities to do research, they are generally nice about it, and the worst that happens is that they say no. Then you email someone else. A lot of professors do interesting work that would be valuable experience for an undergrad. A regret that I have from undergrad is that I didn't try to get involved in a research group as early as possible in my career.

What would people be surprised to know about you / What is a fun fact about you?

I brew my own beer. Most of the time it comes out mediocre, but sometimes it's a disaster (which I think is fun).