Cooking Versus Working as a Chemist

Absurd as it might seem, to compare my top two preoccupations as a summer research student is a natural place to start if you want to learn about my day-to-day experience here. As a staunch experimentalist and passionate cook, the idea of engrossing myself in a combination of both activities enticed me tremendously at the very beginning. Despite being accustomed to the safety net of a full meal plan during the semesters, I had never fancied the pricey summer meal plan. In fact, a week before the summer session started, a single click on Amazon had already delivered some of my favorite authentic Chinese condiments straight to my CSU box. Everything was ready.
In contrast to the careful preparation I made for feeding myself during the summer, I had spent little time imagining laboratory work five days a week. To me the prospect of getting away from bland cafeteria food for seven weeks greatly outweighed the dull picture of lab life, which I thought I was totally familiar with since I had worked in the same lab with the same professor for the past two semesters. Little did I know that my expectation was misplaced, and that revelation came with a bit of disappointment.
On the first day all research students working in the chemistry department went through a safety training session. After the compulsory walk-through and fire extinguisher training were finished, lab life that afternoon was a friendly idyll. Colleagues fresh from more than two weeks of vacation caught up with each other, discussing the development of each other’s project with a touch of optimism and excitement. Professor Harbron, as nice as she’d always been, wittily greeted us with her big smile and iconic enthusiasm. By that night, coming back from a bountiful trip to Target, my roommate and I had taken over an entire cabin at the corner of our common kitchen and filled it with a bedazzling set of condiments and supplies. I was content, though a bit tired from walking around here and there.
However, from the second day onward I started to sense something weird whenever I cooked. Occasionally if I was feeling a little absent, pots and pans would morph into flasks and beakers in front of my eyes. Rinsing bowls could easily slip into a compulsory flurry of filling, swirling, and dumping. Dribbling soy sauce and cooking wine into a pot felt just like preparing my precursor solution that was supposed to form into nanoparticles after several other procedures. These moments of déjà vu was then dwarfed by the haunting fatigue that six hours of lab work mercilessly glued onto my body. My food tasted great but appeared gray as ash before my drooping eyes. Fortunately my great roommate kept me accompanied in the kitchen whenever I cooked and unreservedly praised my food when we ate together.
Throughout the first week my disappointment in the struggle to find a balance between cooking and working could only be rivaled by that in the quest for a perfect demonstration of our desired phenomenon in lab. The idea of working full time was novel to me. Ever since elementary school, I had always enjoyed a long, siesta-like noon break. I would come home, watch my parents cook some simple dishes and have a big lunch. Then after some cozy reading with light music or a refreshing nap I would pick up my backpack and head to class again. I managed to preserve those habits even after I came to college by purposefully choosing my classes to leave some long, blank hours around noon. But now during summer research a short lunch break is the norm and I feel awkward coming back at 2 PM while everyone else is at the height of their workday. With a short lunch break cooking some real food was impossible but I hated to waste my grocery. The solution was to actually cook my lunch but cancel the nap, something easier said than done. The call to nap was irresistible but going back with sleepy eyes was embarrassing. A longer lunch break meant a later time to go home, which subsequently meant later dinner with less efficient cooking in a more crowded kitchen.
I started to realize that trying to live fully up to my expectation would only make me more uneasy. I simply couldn’t expect myself to dish up every meal with impeccable devotion while churning out enough productivity in lab so that I could actually accomplish something in that sphere of my life. So little by little I made concessions. Sometimes packs of instant noodles worked as perfectly as a crafted dish of lamb and carrots. By focusing on what I actually did achieve each day, I gradually tallied more days of cheerful spirit despite the constant fatigue, which I had also learned to live with. After a day of futile attempts in proving a hypothesis, I would still take delight in my delicious cuisine. Or if I had a major breakthrough in lab after some arduous hours of experimentation, I would exempt myself from cooking and get some WaWa to celebrate instead.
And in the end, I do not resent the fact that cooking takes up the largest chunk of my time outside of work. Making a dish brings about a certain kind of purifying force that, when sought out at the right moment, provides unparalleled satisfaction and serenity to my heart. In that respect cooking is most similar to lab work, just like the utensils of one endeavor resemble the apparatus of the other. In lab when a desire for further understanding stems from some primitive awe and curiosity about a natural phenomenon, ideas then sparkle and hypotheses come pouring out from known explanations fused with unusual conjectures, paving the way for experiments designed on strict, logical principles. In a kitchen the impetus for creativity comes from some innate thirst for nourishment and good flavor. Good cooking requires some dogmatic understanding of how our taste buds work but it is really the spontaneity of the adventurous cook that can strike our senses with novel creations of food. I have learned to take great pleasure in both activities. As to seeking a balance between the two, well, I have to say that, like data points on a spectroscopy trace, an equilibrium is not a flat line but rather a collection of dots whose median maintains a relatively stable level. They might not regress at all to that median but I can happily live with the zigzagging path not too deviant from perfection.
After all, summer research is designed for students to find out if full time academic research seems desirable to them and, if so, how it might be coordinated as part of one’s working life. With a positive attitude, I think I can enjoy cooking nanoparticles and injecting soy sauce at the same time, or should I say the opposite?


  1. I call columns a triple layer cake! Both take tremendous amount of time, patience, and care, but in the end the results can be beautiful!