Chemistry Graduate Student Stephanie Smelyansky describes her research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.
Stephanie Smelyansky is a third-year graduate student at MIT originally from the suburbs of Chicago. As a member of the Kiessling group, Stephanie develops new strategies for studying Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis infection. Specifically, Stephanie develops new chemical probes for studying the tuberculosis cell wall and is applying these probes to understand how cell wall dynamics influence pathogenicity and infection outcomes.
As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Stephanie shares the fictional universe in which she’d most like to live, the most famous person she’s met, what’s special about the place she grew up, and more!
- What game or movie universe would you most like to live in? What would be the worst to live in?
I would love to live in the Harry Potter universe! I love the gothic architecture of Hogwarts and I think I’d be pretty good at potions class, plus getting to fly on a broom sounds pretty fun. The worst universe to live in that I know of would hands down be the Attack on Titan universe. Getting eaten alive by grotesque humanoid giants and constantly running for your life doesn’t seem like a good time.
- If you were on a 27 hour flight and could only watch one movie, what would it be?
The Princess Diaries. It’s one of my favorite movies and it never fails to crack me up. I also know the movie so well that I can fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the movie and know exactly where I am, which I think would make it easier to watch on such a long flight.
- What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
After graduating from college, I spent three weeks traveling through Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. It was my first (but hopefully not my last!) time traveling in East Asia, and I loved every second of my trip, from the sightseeing to the food to the just aimless wandering around cities like Tokyo and Seoul.
- What are some small things that make your day better?
Most of the small things that make my day better pretty much all revolve around food or drink. Pastries, snacks, a fancy coffee, a diet coke, or a flavored seltzer, particularly during the after-lunch afternoon slump, automatically uplift my day.
- What was your favorite book as a child, and what is your favorite book now?
As a child, my favorite book (besides the Harry Potter series) was probably Matilda by Roald Dahl. As an adult, it’s hard to pick a single favorite book, since the books I read are all so different from each other that it’s hard to really compare. However, one book that’s really stuck with me since I finished reading it is The Idiot by Elif Batuman.
- If money and practicality weren’t a problem, what would be the most interesting way to get around town?
A Vespa. I know they’re actually pretty common, but I think they just look so cute and would be so fun to ride on!
- What food do you crave most often?
For sweet it’s definitely chocolate, for savory it’s sushi. One of those cravings is much easier to fulfill than the other.
- What one thing do you really want but can’t afford?
A massage therapist. I have scoliosis so I deal with a lot of back pain and I really wish I could afford to get a massage like once a week.
- Who is the most famous person you have met?
John Kerry, the former Secretary of State. I tripped and fell at a college football game and was literally caught by John Kerry, who helped me get back up and made sure I was okay before wishing me a good day and just casually walking away.
- Who has impressed you most with what they’ve accomplished?
My friends! They’re all so different from each other and are on different trajectories in life but I see them working hard to achieve their goals and I’m just so proud of all of them.
- What bends your mind every time you think about it?
Quantum mechanics. In theory I should know some elemental quantum mechanics from my college chemistry classes, but I’m still baffled and amazed by it.
- Where are some unusual places you’ve been?
I’ve been very lucky to travel broadly across the world, so I’ve been able to see many unique places. Some of the more off the beaten path places I’ve visited include the small town of Voss in Norway, the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, and Jeju Island in South Korea.
- What is on your bucket list?
Running a marathon! I love running and have run several half-marathons, so I really want to take the next step and run a full marathon in the near future.
- What’s worth spending more on to get the best?
Definitely shoes. I’d rather pay $100 for a pair of really comfortable shoes that last me for years than a pair of cheap shoes that hurt my feet and fall apart at the end of the year.
- If you suddenly became a master at woodworking, what would you make?
I would pull a Ron Swanson and build a canoe. Maybe I could even paddle it down the Charles.
- Where was the most amazing sunset you have ever seen?
One of my close friends lives in the Warehouse, one of the graduate dorms at MIT. We got takeout and a few beers and were sitting on the rooftop patio during the sunset, and it was absolutely beautiful watching the sun set over Boston and the Charles. There are probably more amazing sunsets out there, but something about watching the sunset with friends on a rooftop in your adopted home city felt pretty magical.
- What is special about the place you grew up?
My parents are from the former Soviet Union, and they were really intent in making sure I grew up speaking Russian and understanding Russian culture. Chicago has a large Russian-speaking population, especially in the north suburbs where I grew up, so I was able to grow up around a lot of people with a similar cultural background to my own. As an adult I’m really grateful to my parents for making sure to pass down their culture to me.
- What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
This might be kind of lame but I could talk for hours about directed evolution. Directed evolution is one of my favorite research areas in chemical biology (and it was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2018!) and it was the topic of one of my two senior theses. It’s not really related to my current research but it is a topic I think I might find myself studying later in life.
- 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?
Living on my own! I now know how much I took for granted living at home. As an adult I have to take care of all the bills, cleaning my apartment, and doing all of my laundry. When I was a kid my parents took care of all of this. Plus, and teenage me would have rolled her eyes at this, I definitely wish I had more opportunities to just hang out with my parents. They seem a lot cooler to me now than they did when I was 16.
- What are you most looking forward to in the next decade?
Finishing this PhD!
Many thanks to Stephanie for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!