Meet James Callahan

May 9, 2019

James Callahan

James Callahan’s hometown is Boston, Massachusetts. He completed a BA in chemistry and physics at Harvard University and then taught high school physics for two years on the North Shore of Boston. Most recently, he worked as a research and teaching assistant at Harvard. He’s now in his second year of pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago in chemistry. This spring, James was awarded the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Research Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. We interviewed him via email about his experiences at UChicago and the award application process.

What have you been studying or researching as part of your program?

I am an electronic structure theorist seeking to accurately describe many-body effects, especially in strongly correlated solids.

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

UChicago has allowed me to thrive as both a computational chemist and an educator. On the research side, there is always a plethora of talks and events in my field of chemical theory and computation. I’ve also been excited to improve my pedagogy through CCT (Chicago Center for Teaching) programming on campus. Also, while UChicago graduate students work hard, we also know how to let our hair down and have fun.

Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.

I’ve been leading a team of PhD students in designing and implementing a full-year materials science course that we currently teach twice a month at a nearby high school through UChicago’s MRSEC (Materials Research Science & Engineering Center). Our class helps get students excited about topics like energy capture and light-matter interactions; both the graduate and high school students have had a lot of fun with activities like building a solar cell, making an interferometer, and synthesizing nylon. I’ve really enjoyed using my past experience as a high school teacher to help fellow scientists craft lucid yet engaging lessons about complex scientific principles. I may be a theoretical chemist, but I like playing with lasers and batteries too!

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

I love exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods, especially on foot. I sometimes walk instead of taking the bus long distances just to enjoy the scenery, like when I walked along the lakeshore 9 miles up to North Avenue Beach from Promontory Point to see the Air and Water Show. I go to lots of festivals throughout the summer and try as many excellent restaurants as I can throughout Chicago year-round. When the weather is nice, I like going for runs to the lake; and when it’s not, I’m often indoors playing board games.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

I am driven by both scientific curiosity and a passion for education, but my specific career goals and plans continue to morph over time. I currently envision myself becoming an academic professor who spearheads a team of graduate and postdoctoral researchers, helps increase scientific curiosity through engagement with the general public, and collaborates with researchers in education to advance post-secondary STEM pedagogy.

What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

Everyone knows graduate school can be difficult at times, so having a robust support network in my peers here has been crucial to my success thus far. Advice I’ve gained from talking to many faculty/staff from UChicago GRAD, the CCT, and my department and have also really helped me thrive here over the past two years.

One offering from Student Health & Counseling Services that I found really valuable was participating in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. Before taking it, I didn’t know the best ways to be helpful to someone going through a mental health crisis, but now I’m better equipped to handle these situations and make sure that the person in crisis gets the support they need.

In another sense of support, I am grateful for receiving an Eckhardt Graduate Scholarship upon my acceptance to UChicago, which has supplemented my stipend and allowed me to connect with a community of scholars across the Physical Sciences Division.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

Don’t be shy in reaching out to people/groups on campus before you apply/matriculate. When I was deciding which graduate schools to apply to, I looked not only at the research profiles of the faculty I was interested in working for but also at the professional development and outreach opportunities that I would have access to as a student. As a prospective student, discussions I had during recruitment events and follow-up calls I made with students/professors/administrators afterwards further showed me that UChicago was a good match for me and solidified my decision to matriculate here.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

I believe that everyone in our society should be included in current scientific conversations, and my past teaching experiences have taught me that it is possible to make any scientific discovery accessible to any audience. Both earlier as a high school teacher and later as a volunteer at the MSI (Museum of Science and Industry), I have worked to increase scientific literacy in the general public.

This past summer I also joined UChicago’s GRIT (Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team), which focuses on recruitment and retention of diverse STEM graduate students from underrepresented populations. As a member of GRIT, I have helped organize the pilot year of "Candid Peer Conversations about the Grad Student Experience" in the Chemistry Department, a series of quarterly panels for first-year chemistry Ph.D. students to chat with older students. I hope that these panels will continue to help new students of all backgrounds feel a sense of welcome and belonging.

How did you approach applying for the fellowship awards? What was the process like?

One year before applying to the NSF GRFP (due late October) and DoD NDSEG (due early December), I attended seminars on each through UChicago GRAD and learned about the general components of the application. I began writing my Personal Statement for the NSF in late June and met multiple times throughout the summer with both a Fellowships Consultant and the Director of Fellowships through UChicago GRAD. I also attended UChicago GRAD’s series of information sessions on these fellowships and participated in several of their peer review workshops. Throughout the process of writing the Research Proposal, I scheduled meetings with my PI to get feedback on my ideas. As the deadlines got closer, I began tailoring both my research and personal statements to better fit the different prompts for each application.

What advice do you have for students who might apply for the award in the future?

Approach your fellowship application (especially the personal statement) as an opportunity to plan out how the graduate degree you are working towards now will fit into your short- and long-term career trajectory. Conversations I had with staff at UChicago GRAD helped me craft a stronger application and solidify how getting a PhD in chemistry would allow me to reach my broader career goals. The process made me reflect on what research/outreach I was currently involved in and how I could continue aligning these activities with my future goals. In the end, remember that a certain amount of chance is involved. But no matter the outcome, the process of applying is a useful exercise in and of itself.

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