Where Are They Now: Patricia Johnson

Photo of Patricia Johnson on a hike in front of a lake called Oeschinensee.

Patricia Johnson, a 2015 UB Graduate is Conducting Research in Switzerland on a Fulbright Grant

What did you learn about yourself from applying to awards like Fulbright, NSF and Marshall? What advice would you give to potential applicants?

The applications take a lot of time and writing, and talking about yourself can be awkward. I learned how to better communicate both science and my personal goals and motivations to reviewers not necessarily in my field. Regarding applying for the awards, I would say to just go for it, even if you are afraid you are not qualified. It definitely takes a lot of time, but if you can afford to take that time away from a job or classes, the worst thing that can happen when you apply is that they say no. A rejection doesn’t move you backward from where you were before you applied, but an award can move you forward. There is no chance of an award if you never apply for it. Also, I would recommend having a few people with different academic and social backgrounds read your application. Make sure they know that you want real, even harsh edits, rather than just reassurances.

What is your current research?

I design, synthesize, and characterize novel organic and organometallic monomers to make polymers react chemically to mechanical force. Right now I am working on making a molecule that is like a little loop held closed with a zinc atom. The idea is that I will connect a polymer chain to each side of the loop, and then apply force by pulling on the chains. The force should cause the loop to open by breaking its bonds to the zinc, but when I let go of the chain, the zinc will stick the loop back together. The purpose of this project is twofold; on a basic science level we want to quantify how much force (in picoNewtons) is required to break a metal-ligand bond, and on an application-driven level we want to find ways to design more durable plastics. The project I am doing in Switzerland is not exactly the same as what I was working on at Duke, but it is related. I am broadly interested in the effect of nanoNewton scale force on metal-ligand bonds (a ligand is a molecule that likes to bond to a metal atom). Right now, due to COVID-19, I am working from home on writing a review. The labs are locked, probably at least until the end of April.

What is it like living in Switzerland?

It can be both challenging and fun to live as an American in Europe. I sometimes feel like I am constantly on the defensive, especially with recent politics, and there are times when it is really hard not to be ashamed of my country and its history or feel like I need to be perfect to represent the U.S. and change stereotypes about it. I know that when I am in public or meet someone new, as soon as people hear my accent they shift their perception of me and make assumptions about my beliefs, my character, my behavior and even my eating habits. As a white woman, I have the privilege of passing as European if I keep my mouth shut, but many assume people of color are not European regardless of where they were born and raised. 

However, Switzerland is a really nice place to live overall. There are some bureaucratic things I had to get used to, like the fact that stores close at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and nothing at all is open on Sundays, but the mountains and lakes are unbelievably beautiful and the public transportation is top-notch. One of my favorite things about living here is my bedroom window. I am on the sixth floor of my building, so every morning I can wake up and see the sun rise over the mountains in the distance, then the green hills outside the little city, and then the city itself. I also love riding the trains. Fribourg is very small and quiet, but the nearby cities of Bern and Lausanne have a lot of great concerts, art events, festivals and restaurants.

What has life been like during the pandemic? Have you returned to the U.S.?

I am actually still in Switzerland, despite Fulbright telling people to return to the U.S. While Americans who come to Switzerland through my program are Fulbrighters in name, we are paid and insured by the Swiss government as one of their foreign scholars. If I leave the country, my grant will end. I feel that, compared to other Fulbrighters and even other graduate students in general, I am in a fortunate position. My parents were at first very worried and wanted me to return to the U.S., but with the chaos I see happening in the U.S., I think I am better off here for now.

As of April 6, 2020, in Fribourg, restaurants are closed except for delivery and non-grocery shops are closed. [We] can gather in groups of five people or less, but must stay two meters apart from each other. [We] can go for walks outside, but gyms, yoga studios, etc., are closed. Switzerland has a lot of cases per capita, but the increases in case numbers are slowing and the government has not imposed total lock down like in Italy.

What advice would you give to students thinking about applying for graduate school?

I went to graduate school because I felt like I had to have a PhD to achieve the professional autonomy I wanted. Before applying to a PhD program, I would look at job ads to find positions you think you would want to do, and then look at the education requirements. If a PhD is required for most of the things you find interesting, then talk to some graduate students and people with PhDs in your field of interest. Ask about why they went to graduate school, if they would do it again, and what they liked/did not like about it. If you have the time during undergrad, do research in a lab or work with a professor to give context to what you hear from the people you talk to.

To be honest, graduate school has been really difficult for me, and almost everyone I know in an American PhD program (the majority of whom are in STEM) has thought about quitting at some point. It is not like undergrad or even a class-based master’s degree because there is little or no external motivation, not even grades after your first or second year. It’s okay to go [into a PhD program] without a step-by-step plan, but you need to make yourself some future goal past the next day’s experiment to remind you why you’re there if that experiment doesn’t work. Finally, when applying for a program, make sure there are at least two professors you could see yourself working with at that university in case you don’t get into your first choice research group or need to switch groups later on.

How are PhD programs in Europe different from those in the U.S.?

In the US, it is rare to do a master's in chemistry unless you drop out of a PhD program, and it is possible to get some industry positions with a master’s or even with a chemistry bachelors plus an MBA or management degree. In Europe, it's very rare not to do a master's, since most programs have a three-year bachelor’s plus two-year master’s structure with both degrees requiring a written thesis. According to my labmates from many different countries, almost everyone in chemistry in Europe is expected to have a PhD to get a job, even a job in industry.

Therefore, I have found that there is less pressure [in European PhD programs] to work all the time than [there is] in the US and less of an emphasis on becoming a professor. Switzerland in particular is interested in having science students learn about entrepreneurship and industry. They have seminars on topics such as how to get things patented and industry interviews. Both the Swiss government and the EU fund grants for start-up technologies developed by academics and grants that include both industry and university collaborators.

What are your current academic/career goals?

I am leaning towards a career in scientific publishing or grant writing because I have found that I like writing and helping people communicate, and I want to maintain a link to science. I would particularly like to work with companies, governments, and researchers who are looking for more sustainable materials and energy sources, or who are finding ways to clean up pollution. I haven’t ruled out applying for professorships, but that is a very competitive track.

I also remotely volunteer as an editor, reviewer and "Ask a Scientist" advisor for the Journal of Emerging Investigators, which is an all-volunteer journal for middle and high school researchers to learn about how to design experiments and communicate in technical writing. When considering a career in [science writing] I got more information by setting up meetings or cold emailing people I found on LinkedIn or through my university career center that had interesting jobs in the field.

What clubs/activities were you involved in at UB?

The Honors College was a big part of my life at UB. I lived in the Honors dorm my first year and I was an officer on Honors Student Council. I also went on two alternative breaks through the Honors College. Other than that, I was in the UB symphony orchestra, took cello lessons, and got pretty into power yoga. I was fortunate to have a car during college, so I was able to go hiking in the Buffalo area pretty often. My favorite class at UB was inorganic chemistry lecture with Dr. Watson. He is one of the best teachers I have ever had at any school and his incredible energy is one of the reasons I tracked more towards chemistry instead of materials science when choosing PhD programs. His class also inspired me to start doing research with Dr. Tim Cook, who was an invaluable mentor and helped me apply to grad school.

Photo of Patricia Johnson standing in front of a field with some cows at a festival.

How do you deal with stress?

During COVID-19, I have not been checking social media and have been limiting how much I look at news sites. Even though I am not a biologist, epidemiologist or virologist, I have taken some biology and microbiology classes and understand how the virus actually works. More than that, though, I have been trained to think critically and have access to and knowledge of scientific resources that can help me figure out if something is true. Still, I feel like it's a losing battle to engage with people spreading fake news because no matter how many sources I provide and how in depth I explain the science behind things, people continue to be really nasty. I have phone calls with my parents and once in a while a family video call with my siblings living across the U.S. I also have Zoom meetings and happy hours with lab mates and friends.

I grew up doing ballet and got back into it when I started grad school. [While living in Switzerland], weekends have been amazing opportunities to hike or just relax in the mountains. I feel really relaxed after cooking dinner, especially when cooking with friends. Walking and paying attention to my dog helps me a lot with stress, but I waited until after my qualifying exam in grad school to get her because I wanted to make sure I could take care of her well. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts, and sometimes after work I just need to zone out to Netflix, often while knitting.

Note: The views expressed in this interview are Patricia’s and do not represent the views of UB, the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships, or the Fulbright program.

Interview with Patricia Johnson conducted by Lisa Gagnon in January 2020 and updated in April 2020.