It’s probably no coincidence that Tanya Das, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering, is studying nano-optics. She’s been finding success by starting small for a long time. This strategy has allowed her to attempt new things as diverse as hip-hop dancing and science writing, while working her way toward her degree.
You could say STEM was a family tradition for Tanya. Growing up in Rochester, Michigan, she had a father with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, a mother with an M.S. in Computer Science, and an older sister pursuing medicine as a surgeon. So while you might not be surprised to learn Tanya went on to earn a B.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan, you might raise an eyebrow to find out she became a published poet at the same time.
Tanya, as I came to learn, had a variety of interests both in and out of academia. We sat down in the Graduate Student Resource Center to talk about her research in nano-optics, one of the best places to get cupcakes in Santa Barbara, and how starting small can lead to bigger success.
Let’s start with your research. How would you best describe your research to someone in an elevator who wasn’t in your field?
I study how light interacts with nano-scale objects. Most of the previous research in this field has been on how changing the properties of the object affects the interaction. Instead, I look at how changing the properties of the light affects the interaction, specifically the light polarization, or the direction of the electric field.
You’ve been in school five years now. What advice would you give to a new graduate student?
Grad school is pretty straightforward when you start: you take classes, there are lectures, homework, and exams, so lots of structure. But the moment you finish classes, things become completely open-ended. That’s when it’s important to impose your own structure on your schedule. You need to identify what your specific research goals are and then break them down into small, manageable steps in order to make progress. Without this, it’s very difficult to get anywhere in your research.
You seem to have a lot of extracurricular interests (e.g., poetry, dancing). Can you tell me about them and also how you manage to structure your schedule to pursue them and graduate school?
I’ve always been a very curious person. In undergrad, I took film, creative writing, and religious studies classes. In grad school, I’ve taken hip-hop and dance classes and I’m taking an acting class right now. For me, the best way to manage my time is to start really small.
For example, I once thought I wanted to be a science writer. At a conference where I was presenting a talk on my research, there happened to be a science writing workshop, so I gave it a try. I got to learn about techniques of science writing, and I also volunteered as a science reporter at that conference and wrote brief news articles on the scientific talks being given. I got a small taste of what it might mean to be a science writer, and even though it was only for a few days, the experience helped me hone my personal and career goals.
So basically, I like to explore things in small ways. When I discover something I like, I dig deeper. That way, I make the most of my time that I spend outside of research.
How do you relax from all your structure?
I really enjoy reading. I’ve recently gotten into nonfiction and I’ve been going through all of Atul Gawande’s books. He’s a surgeon at a hospital in Boston and I’m currently reading his book called “Complications.” I feel like I’m learning secrets about my sister’s life by reading it. And I really enjoy cooking. I’ve tried all kinds of dishes. I enjoy making complicated things from scratch, like pizza, samosas, and fresh pasta. I love the process of cooking because it’s fun and creative. And at the end you get something delicious to eat, unlike research, where you might get one small result after months of hard work that you can’t eat.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
When I’m feeling really down, I treat myself to sushi, cupcakes, and the Gilmore girls. I especially like Enjoy Cupcakes at the Santa Barbara Public Market. They have a variety of really good mini-cupcakes in interesting flavors.
What’s in high rotation on your playlist these days?
Who helped shape who you are today?
When I was in middle school I fell into this group of five friends. We grew up together and have stayed incredibly close over the years. They are my best friends in the world, but we do completely different things. One friend recently started her own company to guide actors in building their careers, one is an ESL teacher, one is a medical writer, one works for the Boy Scouts of America, and another works in the radio business.
They are all incredibly kind, curious, and passionate people. They’ve kept and continue to keep me grounded and have opened up my mind to so many things outside of engineering and science. I’m better for them.
What would people be most surprised to know about you?
When I was in college, I won third place in a poetry contest. I was completely mortified when the poems were published with my name because they were supposed to be published anonymously. In the long run, it turned out well, as it forced me way out of my comfort zone and to own up to my identity as a writer.
What is your biggest accomplishment in life and why?
During my fourth year of graduate school, I decided I wanted to get involved in some meaningful volunteering, and in particular, something outside of science because I felt I wasn’t giving enough value to my interest in writing at the time. I contacted a volunteer coordinator at Partners in Education, a Santa Barbara nonprofit that coordinates many volunteer efforts in Santa Barbara County, and she helped set me up a weekly poetry workshop at the local juvenile probation center in Goleta. I started completely from scratch with the poetry workshop and made up my own structure, lesson plans, and rules.
Nervous barely captures my level of fear when I arrived at the center for my first workshop. I wasn’t sure how the kids I was working with would respond. I was afraid they would be rude, dismissive, and extremely uninterested, but they turned out to be the complete opposite.
I had to stop after a few months because I didn’t have the time to balance research, classes, and a weekly poetry workshop, as it was pretty taxing. But it is something I hope to return to later if I get the time, and something I am proud of myself for pulling off.
What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?
I’m interested in careers outside of academia relating to science policy, science education, and generally bridging the gap between science and society. When people hear I’m an engineer, they always say, “That’s hard,” and it really bothers me that science has this elitist status with the general public. I want to change that by making science a level playing field, and convince people that anybody can understand science.
My immediate goal after graduate school is to pursue a position in a science policy fellowship. I feel that there are not enough scientists contributing their expertise to positions outside of science.