No, Grandma, I’m not working with Geico

It’s always a little tricky explaining the grad school thing. Not many people remember their high school chemistry, and even fewer remember liking it. Heading off to UMass in a few weeks has prompted a lot of friends and family to ask what I’m going to grad school for. Once they hear it’s for chemistry-ish studies, well, then it’s always “what are you doing that for?” (Note: snark is my own. It’s really not that bad.)

I love talking about my work last summer with Al Crosby’s group because it’s so much better than trying to explain to my grandmother what a polymer is (which invariably leads to one of quoting The Graduate). There’s a time and place talking about long-chains and functional groups, and it’s usually not over dinner with my parents’ friends (although was an awesomely unexpected exception at a fundraising dinner for the National Yiddish Book Center). But gecko feet! Everyone knows geckos; everyone likes geckos! At least they like theoretical geckos. Actual geckos scurrying about the room usually aren’t as welcome. So saying I tried to design synthetic gecko feet, useful for anything that needs super gecko-stickiness to come on and off easily, is a good way to gradually address the fun chemistry bits. (Footnote: I actually gave up on synthetic gecko feet really quickly after A.) it turned out to be way out of my league for a 10-week research stint, and B.) we accidentally stumbled on something much more interesting experimentally but much less interesting to talk to random passers-by about. I’m sure the geckos will enjoy their sticky superiority that much longer).