Paul Cesana smiles in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Paul Cesana

Categories: MIT News, Research, Students

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

Paul Cesana is a fifth year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, and comes to MIT from Cranston, Rhode Island. His research in Professor Gabriela Schlau-Cohen‘s group involves supercharging transition metal photocatalysts and photoenzymes by attaching optimized light harvesting species such as dyes and proteins in mimicry of natural photosynthesis. Organisms such as algae and photosynthetic bacteria divide, energetically link, and conquer the processes of light capture and reactivity, and the researchers wanted to know whether it would be successful when applied to catalytic systems as well (It is!).

“I originally sought to teach science at the high school-undergraduate level, said Paul. “One of my organic chemistry TAs, and now best friends, asked me to join their lab, and I learned how interesting scientific research could be! Then, once the ball started rolling, along with some encouragement, I took the chance of applying to graduate school at MIT, and now here I am. I’ll be the first PhD in my family.”

As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Paul reveals the most interesting place he’s ever been, the skill he’d like to master, the mundane invention he really appreciates, and more!

  1. What movie, picture, or video always makes you laugh no matter how often you watch it?
    The movie Airplane from 1980. Not only is it incredibly quotable (We must get this man to a hospital! A hospital, what is it? It’s a big building with a lot of patients in it, but that’s not important right now.), but it is exactly my type of irreverent, ridiculous humor. They show a jet plane for the exterior of the entire movie but play the sound of a propeller – genius.
  2. What did you think you would grow out of but haven’t?
    Pretty much everything. I’m still a kid at heart and go through phases where I’ll get crazy interested in something and need to learn as much about it as possible. Recently they’ve included DJing, Formula 1, languages (thanks Duolingo), Legos, and more. How fun is it to build a gigantic lego on the floor at home? Not included when I was little – knee pain from sitting crosslegged for so long.
  3. Where is the most interesting place you’ve been?
    In undergrad, I was able to take a trip to Oulu, Finland to collaborate with another research group. It was amazing! Oulu is the second most populous city that close to the arctic circle, and we sadly missed the northern lights by about a week.
  4.  If you could pick any career other than the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
    I am a huge movie buff, so I would definitely pick movie director. Having the chance to think up a story and create every aspect of it from scratch would be incredibly fun. Plus the ability to design shots, capture action, and then see a theater of people react to it would be rewarding.
  5. What one thing do you really want but can’t afford?
    A Mercedes AMG G-Class SUV. Yes, it’s incredibly pretentious. Yes, it has the aerodynamics of a filing cabinet. But, it’s so cool to me.
  6. What is the darkest movie you’ve ever seen?
    Anything by Darren Aronofsky could qualify here – Mother, The Wrestler, The Fountain, etc. But, the least comfortable by far is Requiem for a Dream. It is an incredibly well-made well-written well-messaged movie that I never want to see again because of how viscerally affecting it is.
  7. What is on your bucket list?
    Traveling the world. I’m from a family who has barely left the state, let alone the country, and I don’t want my ambition and location to be limited there. I want to see a ton of new places and meet a ton of new people from all over.
  8. Who has impressed you most with what they’ve accomplished?
    My mom, for a variety of reasons, but one I will highlight here is her drive. Starting as a waitress in the kitchen at a nursing home, she worked her all the way up to the top, and is now the head administrator today after earning a second degree while I was in high school.
  9. What skill would you like to master?
    Being in a languages phase right now, I would say that. I’m currently alternating between the German, Spanish, French, and Italian courses on Duolingo, and it’s very fun but a little confusing.
  10. If you could know the truth behind every conspiracy, but you would instantly die if you hinted that you knew the truth, would you want to know?
    Absolutely, I want the truth to all of the conspiracies, but I’m so chatty I would be dead pretty quickly.
  11. Who is the most famous person you have met?
    I don’t really remember it, but apparently at age ~8, the actor James Woods was in front of us in line at a pizza restaurant. When my grandmother told me who it was, I loudly announced “Never heard of him, he must be Rated R.”
  12. Where was the most amazing sunset you have ever seen?
    Not to advertise my home state too much (I always do.), but any beach/coastal cliff in Rhode Island is going to give you an incredible view of the sun setting right over the ocean.
  13. What are the best and worst purchases you’ve ever made?
    I would say my best purchase, and also my largest, is my car, a Volkswagen Tiguan. It’s not the most luxurious or sporty, but it is pretty awesome with it’s giant sunroof and two tone seats, and having the sense of accomplishment once I worked hard enough to pay it off was special. As for the worst, pick a phase of mine. That’s how you end up with Lego cities, fountain pens, a DJ deck, tickets to Formula 1 and the Ultra music festival, and more. I don’t regret any of it, though, it’s all part of the experience.
  14. What’s the funniest TV show you’ve ever seen?
    Similar to Airplane above, I think Seth MacFarlane’s TV shows are hilarious for their stupidly smart humor, specifically American Dad. The surrealistic, non-sequitur, and increasingly zany humor of each episode makes it worth the 20 min of laughter. 30 rock is a lot like this in some ways, too.
  15. What are you most looking forward to in the next decade?
    Seeing what life has in store. Where will I be? What will I be doing? Who will I be doing everything with? What phase will I get into? It’s all scary, but interesting. Unless, of course, I do learn the truth about all those conspiracy theories.
  16. What sport could you play the longest in a televised game, without anyone discovering you aren’t a professional athlete? 
    Honestly probably none, but my friends and I always wish they’d put a regular person in each sport in the Olympics as a comparison to see how bad they would be. IOC, I’ll happily volunteer.
  17. What game or movie universe would you most like to live in?
    What would be the worst to live in? Worst to live in is easier. Something post apocalyptic like the Mad Max universe. Why would you want to? It comes AFTER the apocalypse! Best to live in is tough. Maybe the Lego movie universe? Everything is awesome.
  18. What invention doesn’t get a lot of love, but has greatly improved the world?
    Coffee machines. Instant coffee or stove top percolators? Bleh, I like the new way.
  19. What are some small things that make your day better?
    It’s always the people. Having recurring jokes with your officemates, hearing their laughter, going to grab lunch or coffee with friends. Those moments are the best.
  20. What is something that a ton of people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?
    Pickleball. It’s everywhere now. That is all.