Where Are They Now: Sharon Lin

Sharon Lin sitting on a dock next to a body of water.

Sharon Lin, a 2016 UB Graduate and Recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, is Currently Pursuing her PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT

Why was chemical engineering initially interesting to you?

I enjoyed learning about chemistry in high school and I was intrigued by engineering, especially after talking to some of my friends’ parents who were engineers. Engineering is a very practical field, and I was interested in being able to apply what I learned into real-world applications. Chemical engineering, in particular, has a lot of subfields, from biological engineering to process engineering. There’s a lot that can be done with an education in chemical engineering. The chemical engineering department at UB has a lot of interesting research activities going on that you can be involved in as early as freshman year (just ask around).

You received the Goldwater in 2015. What was the application process like? What do you think set you apart from other applicants? Do you have any advice for students thinking about applying?

If you’re interested in applying for the Goldwater, definitely start thinking about it early! I was in contact with the professors who wrote my recommendation letters as early as September, even though UB’s internal deadline is Nov. 1 and the national deadline isn’t until late January. Although the application for the Goldwater Scholarship is fairly straightforward and likely does not actually take that much time to complete in one go, I definitely spent a lot of time perfecting it. I had my research advisor and other recommendation writers go over my application, and I utilized the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships at UB heavily.

I believe something that set me apart from other applicants was my passion for my research. At UB, I was conducting research in Professor Blaine Pfeifer’s lab in the chemical engineering department, specifically utilizing synthetically facile polymers for gene delivery studies. I was deeply interested in this particular project and its potential in the medical field, so I was able to express my passion and desire to help others with this research in an essay. Additionally, I dabbled in other research projects over several summers (at SUNY Polytechnic Institute and University of Connecticut), which allowed me to broaden my horizons, and subsequently showcase the range of experiences I had in terms of scientific research to the scholarship committee. I was also involved in various activities at UB, which allowed me to both acquire skills outside of the lab and grow as a person. Although the Goldwater Scholarship is primarily focused on the applicant’s scientific potential, my participation in other activities helped bolster my critical thinking and communication skills, which are essential for a successful scientific career.

What clubs or activities were you involved with at UB?

At UB, I was involved in honors college activities such as Honors Student Council and Honor-a-Bull to collect donations for student scholarships. I also went with the honors college to the Dominican Republic during spring break 2014, volunteering with Outreach360 to teach children English through immersion. I also participated in the UB Symphony Orchestra for one semester. I was involved with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) as well as Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society. There, I helped tutor other students in subjects such as organic chemistry and general physics.

How did you choose MIT and what was that application process like?

The application process is quite involved, especially if you want to apply to multiple schools. While the applications for most schools are similar enough that you can “recycle” your personal statements (making sure to adjust them for each school) some of them do require additional essays. I remember a couple of schools wanted a “diversity essay” in which you talk about the benefits of having a diverse environment. It can be tricky to keep track of everything. I had an Excel sheet detailing key information for each school, such as the cost of the application, what essays were required, which labs I was interested in, etc. That proved to be extremely helpful. The application process is also really expensive, as the application fee averages out to around 60 dollars per school, not including the cost to send GRE scores.

I ended up choosing MIT mainly because the chemical engineering department is so huge and therefore I had a lot of freedom in choosing which lab I could work in. I believe it’s different for every department, but for all the schools I applied to that had chemical engineering departments, students don’t choose the lab they will work in until after they are enrolled. In MIT’s case, students don’t officially choose labs until the end of their first semester at MIT. The location of MIT—near Boston and also not too far from where I grew up
was also very attractive. Location is something that I feel is not taken into consideration enough [when choosing a graduate program].

What are you currently researching, and what are your current academic/career goals?

My research right now broadly involves the field of gas separations and investigating more environmentally-friendly alternatives to what is currently used in industry. More specifically, I study polymer membranes and different ways to modify the packing structure of these membranes in order to study effects of such modifications on how they separate gas mixtures. I have been involved in various projects at MIT and we are currently in the process of submitting a manuscript for one of these projects. Currently, I plan on pursuing a job in industry in clean energy after I graduate hopefully in May 2021. I’ve also become interested in post-doctoral positions because they can allow me to explore different fields of chemical engineering to determine what I really want to pursue as a full-time career.

What do you wish you had known when you were a first-year student at UB?

Coming into UB, I remember being very excited (but also extremely overwhelmed) with the sheer number of opportunities readily available for students. While a lot of students may want to hurry and grab all opportunities to build their resume, it’s also important to take the time to learn how to adjust to college life. Make friends in your classes and dorms, explore Buffalo and all it has to offer, and don’t forget to relax from time to time!

What activities are stress-relieving for you in the midst of PhD research?

I really enjoy baking (either by myself or with friends)! I also draw from time to time on my iPad whenever a creative idea strikes. Being very close to Boston also has immense benefits as there’s always activities to do, no matter the season—I frequent coffee shops, check out different pop-up stores, visit markets, and go out to eat at different kinds of restaurants.

Is there anything else you want to share about your fellowships and scholarships experiences?

While the money that comes with winning a fellowship/scholarship can be extremely helpful, and I am not downplaying that benefit, the experience of applying to fellowships/scholarships really helped me to develop skills in communicating science to others. These applications often require you to write about your experiences in a concise and accessible manner, and that’s an incredibly important skill to have. Even if you don’t win the fellowship/scholarship you’re applying for, all the time you spent putting the application together is not a waste at all, so I highly encourage everyone to pursue these opportunities.

Interview with Sharon Lin conducted in January 2020, by Lisa Gagnon.