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I am Jessica Martin, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Martin on her work habits. Jessica A. Martin graduated with her B.A. in chemistry from Heritage University in Toppenish, WA in Spring 2016. During this time, she worked on codling moth genetics at the Yakima Agricultural Research Laboratory of the USDA with Dr. Steve Garczynski for 3.5 years, while also building science and career events for the Science Club and the Medical Sciences Club on her campus. She is now completing her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Connecticut with her thesis focused on studying the graduate student-led laboratory safety team movement as a tool both to strengthen academic research laboratory safety culture and as a means of better preparing PhD-level chemists for industry. She is a founding member of the Joint Safety Team (JST) at UConn, an active member of the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety (ACS-DCHAS), chair of the Younger Chemists Committee of the Connecticut Valley Section-ACS, a DAAD RISE Pro Alumna, and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow.

Current Job: PhD candidate in chemistry
Current Location: University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT
Current mobile device: iPhone 11
Current computer: MacBook Air

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in Fall 2018 to support the last 3 years of my PhD program. This past summer I completely reformatted my thesis. I was previously working on the encapsulation of enzymes with hollow, polymer-based nanocapsules. Now, I am focused on the growing movement of graduate student-led laboratory safety teams working on building safety culture from the ground up in academic research laboratories. I knew before entering graduate school that I would want to go into industry afterwards. As a result, I have been very focused on getting to know the industry so that I could make sure that I was getting out of my graduate program what I needed to be successful in industry. I am also very interested in how chemical and life science companies can use their expertise to become better community members and strengthen the communities around them. I have been inspired by the projects that Dow Chemical (Dow Lab Safety Academy) and ExxonMobil (PALS program) have launched to work with graduate students to not only strengthen safety culture within academic research laboratories, but also to better prepare them to enter industry as more safety-conscious and responsible chemists. The complex reputations that both companies have in terms of being responsible citizens makes this outreach effort that much more important. Corporate decisions come down to the individuals in the room and what they value. It is critical for our global future to develop the professional and ethical capacity within our future leaders so that the people in the room are making the right decisions.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Twitter has become shockingly useful for me in the last several months. LinkedIn is incredibly important in the chemical industry in New England. Google Scholar and SciFinder are key for literature searches. C&EN is an amazing tool for short snippets that keep you up-to-date with what is going on in the chemical industry and academia. Zoom and Skype have been great for communication and recordings. The seamless ability to access pictures and recordings between my iPhone and my MacBook have been timesavers for years. Believe it or not, the trusty USB flashdrive has come crashing back into my life with an importance I would not have anticipated a few years ago, and I still haven’t forgiven Apple for taking my USB flashdrive ports away! Also, with all of the walking I have been doing since I moved to Storrs without a car 3 years ago, the podcast has made a comeback in my life. Having not listened to podcasts for several years, I was unaware until recently how incredible the quality has become. My go-tos are the In Vivo podcast out of UConn, STEM-Talk, Science Friday, Science Talk (Scientific American), and The Dr. Drew Podcast. Having grown up listening to Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla on their show LoveLine on KROQ in the 1990s, I was thrilled to find that Dr. Drew was still at it!

What does your workspace setup look like?
Work takes place mainly at either my desk space in my lab at work, or at my desk space at home, although I also like to travel around to coffee shops and bars as I find earning my right to socialize with people that have nothing to do with my work is a great way to incentivize myself to get through a tough chunk of work!

office desk
home desk

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Talk to everyone you find! Ask them questions about their work and research, no matter how little you think you know. The less you know to start with, the more you are going to learn from that conversation. I find that people doing research in technical fields often describe themselves as introverts and say they are uncomfortable talking in front of audiences, however, if you start asking them questions about their work in a small group (or one-on-one) setting, they will never stop talking and their excitement for what they do comes through spontaneously. Also, advice for the students out there: asking a question about a professor’s research in the middle of a lecture is a great way to derail a boring lecture and get an excited scientist talking to you about something much more interesting! I find that consistently engaging in those conversations primes me to read the papers or books that fill in my knowledge gaps.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I love physical check-off lists. However, it is more typically responsibility to others that keeps me on track. Every project I do, I look for someone with whom to work. That way we are held accountable and responsible for one another and the project moves forward much more quickly. I have always considered myself an independent worker because I do a lot of thoughtful work alone, I dig deep into (too many) things, and I take initiative enthusiastically. However, I have realized that it is challenging for me to maintain excitement and momentum for something if I am going it completely alone. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with people who share my passion and drive, and find that this interaction revs the engines of creativity and productivity so much more effectively. So, in a nutshell, my overview of projects takes on the form of a list of people more than a list of things to be done.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I used to do a great deal of Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) for my previous projects. I really enjoy microscopy since it gave me the opportunity to see things that no one would ever see otherwise. You would think this would clarify things, but given the complexities of how microscopes allow us to see things, the interpretation of what is being seen is a fascinating challenge unto itself. The various ways that microscopy has improved over the last few decades is positively mind-blowing and I hope for it to re-enter my professional life at some point.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I don’t think of myself as an academic and have no intention of remaining in academia once I have completed my PhD. I love figuring out how to put all the pieces together, whether that is improving a program, connecting people I know who I think should know each other and work together, or digging down underneath the stereotypical gripes to figure out what is at the root of problems. I am always eager to get things to work as they should for the reasons they were created to begin with. I hate the concept of “one more stupid form to fill out” or one more useless training to endure while my real problems lay festering. As a result, I love getting opportunities to discuss work and life with people from very different walks of life from my own, as well as taking the time to note what frustrated me at different points on my journey so that I can remember to address those problems whenever I am presented with the opportunity to do so higher up in the hierarchy.

What do you listen to when you work?
While I am working, I don’t listen to music much, although for awhile I liked to play Mumford and Sons in the background. When I need a break or a boost, I’ve got Nicki Minaj, Snow Tha Product, Ani DiFranco, Fall Out Boy, Halestorm, Jay-Z, Rage Against the Machine, Sick Puppies, and others. Two songs that I keep blasting lately are “Champion” by Carrie Underwood and “FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

At the moment, I am spending about 30 minutes in the morning reading “InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing” by Svend Brinkmann and Steinar Kvale in order to learn more about how to conduct and analyze qualitative interviews for a project I am working on. In the evening, I am spending about the same amount of time reading “Exposure: Poisoned water, corporate greed, and one lawyer’s twenty-year battle against Dupont” by Robert Bilott which I picked up after listening to an interview of the author on a podcast. Throughout the day, I end up skimming through many research papers and news stories.

I find that dedicating that 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening was very important. The 30 minutes in the morning is always dedicated to something that is directly work-related since I think better in the morning. The evening reading is meant to be lighter reading about something that I find interesting, but is not necessarily directly related to my work. I also need the evening reading to be less technical in nature so that my brain is getting a little bit of a break. For the evening reading, I recently finished “The Beautiful No” by Sherri Salata and a biography of Catherine the Great.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

I find this divide perplexing. When I need downtime, I prefer to spend it alone running, going for a walk, riding a bike, or reading – so some might characterize me as an introvert. I also enjoy taking time to work from home so that I can focus on details and not be interrupted by others. However, as I described above, I find working with others who share my passion to be motivating and exciting, so this may put me in the extrovert category.

What’s your sleep routine like?
I work hard to keep my sleep routine pretty consistent. I typically go to bed somewhere between 9 PM and 11 PM, and wake up between 6 AM and 7 AM. I hate going at things tired because I can physically feel the grinding of gears in my brain when I am trying to do something on very little sleep. That being said, when I get particularly excited about projects, I have a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night with a flurry of ideas and have to write them down or type them up just so I can get them out of brain and I can go back to sleep.

What’s your work routine like?

I am interested in and passionate about so many things that it can be a struggle to stay focused. However, I always try to take the time to nudge every project forward a little bit every week. Also, taking breaks to go for a walk at multiple points throughout the day helps tremendously in clearing my head and getting me to think about what is really important to get accomplished when I get back to my desk. I also like to use meetings with various stakeholders in my projects to motivate me. By needing something substantive to talk about at each of these meetings, It creates a sort of artificial deadline that motivates me to focus and progress. Also, I do a great deal of writing, and I find that committing to write a really awful first draft is a great way to start. By giving myself permission to write complete garbage, I get a first draft on paper and now I (and others) have something to edit into a masterpiece.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A combination of my first PI and my undergraduate academic advisor.
My first PI: No amount of preparation can make up for dumb luck.
Academic advisor: Luck favors the prepared.
If you want good things, work hard, but NEVER underestimate how much luck has to do with your (or anyone else’s) success.

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