A Chemistry Graduate
Student’s Excursion into
Shriyaa Mittal, graduate student, University of Illinois,
There is a joke to be made about grad students and free food. When the department offered us a chance to have
breakfast with an invited seminar speaker, I immediately googled the breakfast menu for
the venue. So, over bagels and peanut
butter, three grad students, including me, and a professor talked
about our research and more.
Once we had exhausted some
of the usual topics, such as
the speaker’s schedule for
the day and course requirements at our respective
universities, the professor asked, “What do you
do outside the lab?” This
was when I unexpectedly
realized that mentioning, “I
am learning Latin,” is a great
conversation starter. The same
thing happened at a department
social while I was chatting with
some new and senior grad students.
Just mentioning the Latin language turned
everyone’s attention to me!
I did not set out to learn Latin as a means to seek at-
tention. Neither am I so good at it that I should even show off;
I have taken only one class, Latin 101, and read some short
stories from Roman and Greek mythology.
How I Chose an Extracurricular Activity
(i.e., Studying Latin)
The decision to study Latin came about during my fourth semester of graduate school. I wanted to explore something out
of my comfort zone and outside my research, if only to divert
my mind from a mid-Ph.D. crisis! I registered for the course
and went to the first class expecting to drop it soon after due
to the outlandishness of the idea. As it turns out, taking the
course is one of the many things I will always remember from
my graduate school experience.
Talking to my course instructor, I came to know that he
was pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin as a member of the Classics
department, where it is common for grad students to teach
an entire class. It gave me a peek into the life of non-STEM
PhDs and the challenges they face in their funding. We
commiserated on many common experiences, and he was
quite excited to have a STEM graduate student in his class.
My classmates—freshmen and sophomores in law, psychol-
ogy, and English literature—were curious about what I was
working on. This provided me with an interesting science
communication challenge, explaining my research and
day-to-day activities to an interested and intelligent audi-
ence who had no background in science.
Latin 101 was also the first freshman-
level course I had the opportunity to
take in the United States. My un-
dergraduate degree was earned in
India, and my Ph.D. program
curriculum only included
400-level or 500-level courses.
Hence, I could not help com-
paring and contrasting the
college education system in
these two countries. (I will
not bore the reader with my
wanderings on this topic
here!) Indeed, one of the big-
gest surprises I had was when
I realized during the first few
lectures that Latin grammar is
like that of Sanskrit, which I had
taken in high school. In many ways,
the semester-long course provided me
with a breath of fresh air.
The Unintended Benefits of My Extracurricular
It was hard for me to take a course outside of science; it
included homework due every day and quizzes twice a week,
and yet, I cherish every Saturday I spent parsing Latin sentences. I used to carry vocabulary cards in my pockets so that
I could memorize noun and verb forms on bus rides or while
waiting for a seminar to begin. My excitement to do something outside the lab made me more efficient and gave me
incentive to plan my time when I was doing research at the
lab. I was no longer constantly working on my research project, a situation that counter-intuitively increased my output.
Moreover, the course provided a much-needed diversion.
I realized that the time I spend as a graduate student
can be fruitful only if I work on my all-around development
in parallel with my intellectual development through the
research problems I tackle. There are a lot of challenges and