A male graduate student stands in front of a brick wall.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Aaron Liu

Categories: Students

Chemistry Graduate Student Aaron Liu describes his research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.

Aaron Liu is a first year graduate student, and has been at MIT since July 2018, when he began his rotational program with Professor Alison Wendlandt‘s group. He considers himself a “third culture kid” – he was born in Australia, spent his childhood in Hong Kong, his college years in Rhode Island, and the six years after graduation living in New York City, the place that now feels the most like “home”. Aaron is interested in expanding the scope of molecular frameworks in modern therapeutics through the development of a general, selective and efficient catalytic system. His graduate research is focused on the development of site-selective C-H diversification methodologies for glycosides. In order to gain insights for future reaction development, he and his fellow group members conducted mechanistic and kinetic studies to understand the basis for selectivity.

As the subject of December 2018’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Aaron reveals his ideal weekend, the person with whom he’d most want to be trapped in an elevator, his top three favorite movies, and more!

  1. What random job do you think you’d be really good at?
    Before coming to MIT, I was a portfolio manager at a hedge fund with a four-year-track-record averaging over 30% per year – and I’d like to think that I was pretty good at that.
  2. What food do you crave most often?
    I probably crave shrimp scampi most often, but thankfully there are lots of good restaurants around here!
  3. What superstition do you believe in?
    I’m not exactly a superstitious person.
  4. What would be your ideal way to spend the weekend?
    My ideal weekend would be a snowboarding trip in Vermont.
  5. What TV channel doesn’t exist but really should?
    Hmm… I’m not entirely sure if this already exists, but concept of a TV channel about the history and science behind the invention and evolution of musical instruments is pretty interesting.
  6. What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
    I really look forward to settling down with my own family and have a career that will get me excited every morning!
  7. Who has impressed you most with what they’ve accomplished?
    Alexander Borodin is one of my heroes. Not only did he make significant contributions to organic chemistry through his discovery of the aldol reaction, but he also deeply influenced a couple of great composers – Ravel and Debussy – through his music.
  8. As a child, what did you think would be awesome about being an adult, but isn’t as awesome as you thought it would be?
    I really disliked school growing up… So I thought to myself “no more school after I graduate college.” I thought it would be awesome to not have to take exams as an adult. That was true, but turns out it was not as amazing as I thought because being out of school also meant that I am missing out on intellectual discussion opportunities with classmates/teacher/professors.
  9. Who is the most famous person you have met?
    I have met Emma Watson three times back when I did my undergrad at Brown University, but she probably did not know who I was.
  10. Why did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
    I started my career on Wall Street as an analyst right after college, and eventually I spent four years working as a portfolio manager at a hedge fund in NYC. My job description was simple: “make money”. While I was “creating value” for my fund and its investors, the number of people who benefited from my work was ultimately limited. Over the years, I realized that I’d like to have a career where I can create a platform for others to build upon, and I can do that as an organic chemist! I eventually want to develop a general, selective and efficient catalytic system that medicinal chemists can use to develop drug candidates, but first I have to hone my skills as a student – that’s why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry.
  11. What are your top three favorite movies?
    Good Will Hunting, The Matrix, The Green Mile.
  12. What would be the most amazing adventure to go on?
    I believe that the most amazing adventure would be “re-living” certain memories in our past (through a game or something – if this is even possible) and see how we’ll make decisions given what we know today.
  13. Who’s your go to band or artist when you can’t decide on something to listen to?
    Hilary Hahn. She is my favorite violinist.
  14. If you had unlimited funds to build a house that you would live in for the rest of your life, what would the finished house be like?
    I would build something like “The Factory” designed by Ricardo Bofill.
  15. Who would be the best person you could be stuck in an elevator with?
    It would be my brother. We talk about everything, so he’ll definitely keep me entertained. Also, he’s one of the smartest people I know, so he’ll probably figure out a way to get the elevator working again with just his phone.
  16. Who, besides your parents, has had the greatest impact on your life?
    Prof. Jason K. Sello. He was my undergraduate advisor when I worked in his lab as an undergraduate researcher. Not only did he spark my interest in organic chemistry, but he’s also been incredibly supportive of my life decisions.
  17. What hobby would you get into if time and money weren’t an issue?
    I would learn how to make violins in Cremona, Italy. I’ve always found violins incredibly beautiful, and I’d love to make one at some point in life.
  18. If you could pick any career other than the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
    I think I’m very set on being a chemist after I graduate as I had already explored career options in the business/music world. I just wish that I had come to this realization earlier.
  19. What would be the scariest monster you could imagine?A cartoon character with eyes that pop out and stares at me while I sleep.
  20. What’s something common from your childhood that will seem strange to future generations?
    Videocassette recorders – VCRs – are probably one of the things from my childhood that is strange to future generations. Especially since we can now stream media content online anytime as long as we have internet connection. Why bother recording shows on these bulky “cassette tapes” right?!

Many thanks to Aaron for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!