In this regular feature, we hear from women academics and professionals about their lives, their faith, and the way it all intersects. Pull up a chair and join us as we chat with chemical engineering professor Szu Wang.
Welcome, Szu! Tell us about yourself.
Name: Szu Wang
Current job: Professor, University of California at Irvine
Current location: Irvine, California
Schools attended: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (BS in Chemical Engineering); Stanford University (MS, PhD in Chemical Engineering)
A favorite activity: Traveling and eating good food with my family
What was the hardest part of grad school and what kept you sane?
Halfway through graduate school, I decided to leave the university due to a difficult lab situation. It became a crisis of self-worth, overwhelming impostor's syndrome (although at the time there was not yet a name for it), and wondering whether God cared. Another professor, who eventually became my new research advisor and was the only female faculty member of the department, convinced me to stay, and I finished my PhD work in her lab. During that entire time, my women's Bible study group at church was my lifeline. The group was led by the pastor's wife, a thoughtful and wise woman who taught us a deep appreciation for God's word. This wonderful group prayed for me and supported me with their friendship and humor. So the presence of women, both as mentors in leadership and as sisters in friendship, was instrumental to my survival of grad school.
What do you love most about your job right now?
One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is being involved in the professional growth of my students. For graduate students, this includes watching them grow in research ability and reach certain milestones, such as their first published paper, their first conference presentation, and eventually their research independence and thesis defense. For undergraduates, it's helping them to understand difficult engineering concepts and exploring possible career paths with them.
How does your faith inform the way you think about or do your work?
Academia is a place that, at all levels, is hyper-performance-oriented. For faculty, there are always more papers or research grant proposals to write, more ways to improve your teaching, and others who are doing "better" than you — whatever the metric may be. So it's easy to let unhealthy ambitions and an over-scheduled, stressful calendar dominate life. My faith continues to remind me that my worth is not based on what I do or how well it's done, and that there is grace to be who I am, even if it falls short of expected standards. This helps me to have a better perspective of what is important and how to spend my time (although this is still very much a work-in-progress).