Chemistry Graduate Student Erica Tsai describes her research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.
Erica Tsai has been at MIT for three years, and comes to Cambridge from the East Bay Area of California. Her research in Professor Steve Buchwald‘s group involves utilizing copper hydride catalysis to achieve transformations of carbonyl compounds, including coupling reactions and selective reductions of carbonyl derivatives.
As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Erica shares the thing she is obsessed with, the most unsettling film she’s seen, the TV character she’d like to trade places with for a week, and more!
- How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
I first became interested in chemistry after participating in the University of California COSMOS program in high school – the science seemed so cool, and the professors were so passionate about their fields! I spent my summers in college in various research areas (medicinal chemistry, battery technology, biochemistry) and absolutely loved my time exploring organic synthesis.
- If you owned a boat, what would you name it?
- Which fictional character would be the most boring to meet in real life?
I don’t know about boring, but I would absolutely hate dealing with Holden Caulfield in real life.
- What are the best and worst purchases you’ve ever made?
I’m pretty frugal when it comes to spending money on clothes, so I remember debating whether to buy a $60 coat on a Black Friday many years ago – I eventually did and it’s become my go-to jacket in cold-but-not-frigid weather, and definitely worth the purchase!
No singular purchase stands out as the worst, but I’m a sucker for good deals. Something I have no use for is 70% off? I’m at least going to consider buying it.
- What problem or situation did TV / movies make you think would be common, but when you grew up you found out it wasn’t?
I grew up watching a lot of Korean dramas, so 1) dramatic showdowns between guys who like the same girl, 2) people being hit by cars (and subsequently falling into comas and waking up with memory loss), and 3) people who you’ve known forever turning out to secretly be rich heirs/heiresses (who inevitably have no desire to take over running their parents’ empire).
- What is something you are obsessed with?
Hedgehogs! I consider them my animal doppelgänger – small and cute, but very spiky when intimidated/afraid.
- Where is the most beautiful place near where you live?
This is stretching the definition of near, but Acadia National Park is absolutely gorgeous! For something a little closer to Boston, I’m a fan of the Waterfront at night.
- Where and when was the most amazing sunset you have ever seen?
I was in France the summer after my junior year for a lab internship, and I saw a sunset over the Seine in Paris with gorgeous cotton-candy clouds and the most amazing palette of oranges and pinks.
- What food have you never eaten but would really like to try?
I’ve actually never had durian before, and it’s such a polarizing food I feel I have to try it.
- What is the most unsettling film you’ve seen?
The Prestige really messed with me for a while – without giving away the ending, I feel like it really spoke to me about the struggle between fame/success and identity.
- If you were given a PhD degree (in something other than chemistry), but had no more knowledge of the subject of the degree besides what you have now, what degree would you want to be given to you?
Man, I don’t think I’d be qualified for anything! I feel like it would be unfair to get an actual/official degree without having paid my dues. Maybe something fun, like “Trying New Things.”
- What TV show character would it be the most fun to change places with for a week?
I’d love to be a Pokémon trainer! It seems like such a relatively safe world (you send ten year-olds off on long journeys by themselves) and people are generally so friendly. I grew up watching and playing Pokémon, and it would be amazing to actually experience it for a while.
- What goal do you think humanity is not focused enough on achieving?
Solving climate change! The sheer number of people who either don’t believe it exists, or who believe it’s too late to do anything amazes me.
- If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
Honestly, a museum of bubble tea. Mostly just because of the potential for samples, but I also think it would be really interesting to research how the different flavors and toppings came about, and also other uses of common ingredients (for example, taro is actually a really common ingredient in many savory dishes!).
- What animal or plant do you think should be renamed, and what should the new name be?
I feel like the mantis shrimp deserves a more majestic name that somehow embodies both how iridescent and also deadly it is, but I have no idea what that would be!
- If you could hack into any one computer, which computer would you choose?
Per a suggestion from a friend (and I guess assuming lack of any criminal liability), it would be really interesting to see what’s going on in the Department of Defense mainframe.
- What was one of the most interesting concerts you’ve been to?
Princeton’s Glee Club has an annual concert with the Yale Glee Club that’s always a blast and full of amazing music.
- What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a work of fiction?
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
- If money and practicality weren’t a problem, what would be the most interesting way to get around town?
This would require my clumsiness not being a problem either, but I’d love to Solowheel around.
- What always cheers you up when you think about it??
That someone, somewhere, is having the best day of their life so far.
Many thanks to Erica for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!