Prior work experience honed skills that proved valuable in graduate school
Dec 13, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
Erin Lea Gawron came to Georgia Tech after teaching high school science for 10 years. The experience taught her valuable skills that she used as she pursued her graduate degree.
“I usually encourage undergraduates to work for a couple of years before going to graduate school,” Erin says. Having work experience helped Erin think of graduate school as more of a job than going to “school.” This framework, she says, helped her succeed in tough situations; she handled hurdles with poise because of coping skills she learned in her former workplace.
“Because of the prior work experience, I was more independent and organized, had a better head for stressful situations, could deal with criticism, and knew how to seek resources when necessary,” Erin says. “All of these skills play into making a successful Ph.D. student.”
It was during her senior year studying for a B.S. degree in chemistry and mathematics at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Indiana, that Erin decided to be a teacher. After receiving a master’s degree in science education and a teaching certificate from Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, she began teaching at Heritage High School, Conyers, Georgia.
“While teaching, I worked with the marching band and the drama program and coached ultimate Frisbee,” Erin says. She also chaired the science department and taught in the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program for four years.
“I had always known that I wanted to get my Ph.D. but I did not know exactly what I wanted to study,” Erin says. While a science teacher, she participated in the Georgia Intern Fellowships for Teachers (GIFT) program through the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. As a GIFT Fellow, she did research in biofuels, in the laboratory of Dan Geller in the University of Georgia.
“Sharing this research with my students made me fall in love with teaching and research,” she says. The experience cemented her decision to pursue a Ph.D. so she could become a better researcher and perhaps teach at the college level.
Through the GIFT program and her high school students who enrolled at Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech became familiar to Erin and a natural choice for her graduate study.
Erin is graduating with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Her next stop is Canada.
What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
The most important thing I learned is how many resources are available to students. Georgia Tech met and exceeded my expectations in many ways: from excellent student healthcare, to fun nights at Six Flags, to the Tech to Teaching program, which prepares graduate students for college teaching positions.
What surprised you most at Georgia Tech?
Technology in my field had progressed immensely in the 13 years between my B.S. degree and starting my Ph.D. I used to look up spectra and journal articles in books. Instruments used to plot data with chart paper and pens, not through computers! One of the reasons I chose Georgia Tech was the instrumentation and technology available for our research.
Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?
I was fortunate to join the lab of Professor Jiri Janata and his wife, Mira Josowicz, who work closely together as a research team. Honestly, team is not even the right word; family is. They treat their graduate students as members of their family and always have the students’ best interests in mind. They are the least selfish people I know.
They taught me much more than just chemistry and how to be a good researcher. They’ve helped me navigate life – especially in making the transition from a full-time career teacher to a student who is more than 10 years older than most of my classmates.
What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
My most vivid memory of Georgia Tech has to be meeting my now fiancé. We met during my first year at Tech; he was a second-year graduate student also in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. We were close friends for four years before we started dating. We enjoyed our time on campus together, going to football games and departmental events. We joined the Atlanta Curling Club together.
What was the most valuable outcome of your participation in experiential learning activities?
As a graduate student, I attended various conferences with funding help from the College of Sciences and the Student Government Association. My most valuable conference experience was attending the Gordon Research Conference in my field, electrochemistry. I urge others to attend one of these conferences, which are unique because of their intimate nature and the networking opportunities they provide.
Participating in the Graduate Student Forum of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry allowed me to take a leadership role in the school and interact with professors and students to plan social events and seminars and to serve on school committees.
I served as vice president and then as president of the Georgia Tech student chapter of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management. My service allowed me to travel to the annual meetings and network with folks working in the Department of Energy (DOE) and DOE National Laboratories. I learned about the nuclear materials field and how my skills as an electrochemist could fit into another area.
What advice would you give to incoming graduate students at Georgia Tech?
Seek out all the resources available to you right away. If you want to add to your program or if you’re interested in learning more about something, you can make it happen. Opportunities may not be advertised specifically, but most people are willing to work with you if you take the initiative.
For example, I wanted to be in the Tech to Teaching program, but I had already taught for a long time. The program tailored a few things so that I could still learn more about teaching at the college level without repeating fundamentals I already knew. All I had to do was ask.
Take advantage of all the campus activities and sporting events that you can. We are lucky that they are free to students. They give you more of a feel for campus life.
Get involved in activities outside of campus. Joining the Atlanta Curling Club gave me a way to relieve stress and a circle of friends who were not related to Georgia Tech or my research. This activity allowed my brain to take a break one or two evenings a week and kept me refreshed for my research.
Where are you headed after graduation?
I am headed to a postdoctoral research position at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. My Georgia Tech education prepared me well for this next step, because I learned valuable skills in my Ph.D. work that can directly translate to my new projects. Understanding the research process and knowing specific scientific concepts allow me to jump right into a project when I arrive in Canada.