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Rather than camping and hiking, Alyssa Pearson has spent most of her summer so far in a chemistry lab.
Pearson studies the sun with associate professor John Hoberg, whose group works on catalysts that will harness solar energy, specifically hydrogen.
The third-year doctoral student typically works upwards of 60 hours a week in the lab. It's quite a way to spend the summer, but Pearson wouldn't have it any other way, and Hoberg says he's glad to have the help in his lab. In fact, Hoberg says, graduate students are the life blood of every department on any college campus.
"They're the heart and soul of the department," Hoberg says. "If we didn't have them, none of us would be doing research. They do all the work. Without them we're dead. Without GAs our undergraduate labs don't get taught. They go into the labs for three-hour sessions Monday through Thursday. If we didn't have GA support, it would be a real problem teaching undergraduate labs. The support for that aspect is absolutely a necessity."
The University of Wyoming provides support for graduate students in the form of assistantships; approximately 44 percent of UW's graduate students are supported by a graduate assistantship. Pearson had support for her first two years in her program in organic chemistry, and will have support for the remaining two years. That means she can commit herself fully to her thesis and her research, and to the work of the Hoberg group in the chemistry department.
"The research aspect of a doctorate is the most important part of graduate school," she says. "If that didn't exist most people would just get a master's, because a master's is two years additional coursework with a bit of research. A doctorate is very research-based and it's all I'll do for the next two years, trying to get results, trying to get publications."
Far more than the publication of results and studies, Pearson benefits from the lab experience by learning real-world problem solving. She recently finished her coursework and passed her preliminary and cumulative exams, so the end is more or less in sight. She says her plan is to apply for jobs, and possibly apply for post-doctoral positions in academe.
Regardless, she says her lab experience as a GA will prepare her for whatever comes in the future.
"I learn a lot more in the lab than I do in the classroom," she says. "You need the classes to learn the fundamentals and the basics, but some reactions we talk about in class work on paper but are disasters in the lab. You learn a lot in the lab because you have to do a lot of problem-solving."