interviews

Alicia Koo

Elyssa Macfarlane
Alicia Koo

Alicia and I initially started talking about her doing an interview on MoT back in September. For context, it is now nearly the end of December. During that time a lot changed in both of our lives (particularly hers), leading to this interview being extended, edited, and entirely flipped over to where we had to scrap the original and start from scratch. When I initially approached Alicia, she was conducting research on batteries and testing different materials to expand their capacity at one of Canada’s prominent universities. For context, only three universities in Canada have the resources to facilitate this type of research on batteries as it is a very niche practice. I was surprised to learn that UBC isn’t one of those three. However, even from an early stage in our conversations, Alicia was referencing circumstances and issues from her lab that, to me, sounded problematic and toxic.

One day, throughout our back and forth, Alicia emailed me to let me know that she had left her research due to the experiences I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and that if I didn’t want to move forward with the MoT interview she would completely understand. I let her know that wasn’t the case, but in order to re-jig the interview I needed a better understanding of what she would want to speak to. After some back and forth, Alicia explained that she’d like to take the learnings from her experience in academia and apply them to her interview to build upon her experience and share how it could have been made better. She is also incredibly well-versed in the conversation on climate change, its political downfalls, and the steps needed in order for meaningful change to take place.

Alicia is both well-spoken and prescriptive in her narrative and what she hopes to see moving forward. I felt compelled to create a space where she could outline the important things that she had to say, and here it is. For both obvious and our own reasons, we agreed it would be best for Alicia to leave the institution nameless in her interview.

Tell me about yourself and how you ended up doing an interview on Meditations on Tech

I’ve always enjoyed creating, learning, and teaching in whatever form that took, which lead me to pursue becoming a researcher as I believed it would allow me to do all three. As an early career scientist, my focus had mainly been related to environmental stewardship in some way. During my undergraduate career at UBC, I majored in chemistry and helped develop various energy conversion and storage materials including those for nuclear waste sequestration and dye-sensitized solar cells. My interests then turned to batteries for applications in electric vehicles and I spent a year working towards a Master’s in engineering before deciding academia was no longer for me.

Upon starting my graduate studies, I began sharing more of my stories on Instagram. The purpose was mainly twofold: (1) to share research and science in a way that was accessible to the general public, and (2) more recently, to open up lines of discussion about graduate student mental health. It was around that time that we began talking!

Can you elaborate a bit on your experience in looking to get your Masters? What were some of the hurdles you encountered?

As with any graduate program, you should expect to work hard, be able to handle stressful situations, and be a self-starter in order to succeed. The process is not easy, nor should it be. However, I believe the challenges should mainly stem from the nature of the research being done, rather than from a research environment that hinders student success. I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve outlined a couple of things I believe are necessary but were lacking from my graduate student experience.

Clear communication and supportive mentorship

The poor communication and lack of avenues by which I could contact my supervisor meant that there were no clear expectations or timelines for the research I was doing. In addition, much of the internal discussions within the lab was not in English and was not inclusive to a number of other students, including myself, which would often lead to miscommunication. While it is absolutely possible to learn on your own without a mentor, having a supervisor or senior member of the lab to plan and discuss ideas with can significantly mitigate time wasted on experiments or approaches that may have already been attempted in the past. Time and resources were thus wasted and my expected graduation time likely would have been delayed.

Knowing your values, and working in a lab that embodies that culture

I began to develop chronic anxiety due to unsafe lab conditions and witnessing unethical behavior within the lab that were not conducive to the research and skills I had originally wanted to develop. Unfortunately, I had brought these issues up before to supervisors and the rest of the group, and while it was acknowledged, it was also clear that there was no intention to resolve them.

Without going into too much detail, my values and goals for why I chose to be there were not in alignment with those of my supervisor and most of the people I worked with. Ultimately, I decided to withdraw because it was no longer worth my time.

How can post-secondary institutions look to improve working conditions, and the well being, of those looking to pursue a masters or a PhD in STEM?

Post-secondary institutions will need to be more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to ensuring that there is a healthy environment for graduate students. I think the following are some short-term changes that can be implemented by most institutions to ensure that both students and faculty are on the same page: Ensure that there are systems in place to ensure that both student and supervisor are held accountable for their actions. For example, this may be in the form of explicit contracts between both parties upon starting a new program, with an avenue to resolve any issues with a third party if any of it is breached. Mandatory training for both students and faculty in terms of mental health awareness, inclusivity, and management skills to foster more effective research environments. Provide easily accessible on campus mental health resources, as well as initiatives to promote general health and well-being of both students and faculty.

We’ve talked a lot about the energy crisis and how humanity (on a global level) is really dropping the ball when it comes to acting on climate change. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on the energy crisis and how Canada needs to act in order to address the severe consequences of climate change?

Climate change should not be a partisan issue which it seems to have become in recent years. There needs to be immediate plans of action to both mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change instead of using it as an issue to further political agendas. Recent reports have shown that most countries that have signed the Paris Accord to limit global temperature increase to below 2°C from pre-industrial levels will fail to meet these goals. This would be detrimental to all of humanity, not just to single nations. It’s a global issue and should be treated with the urgency it deserves. I can really only speak from a scientific point of view in terms of how I view the energy crisis which stems in part from our dependence on non-renewable sources of energy that result in emissions that contribute to climate change. I am, of course, an advocate of sustainability and I think there needs to be further investment in green energy rather than in non-renewables. In addition, there needs to be long-term investments to update our infrastructure to prevent waste in how we use and store energy. This could be in the form of making it easier to put energy back into the grid to incentivize installation of solar panels, for example. As the recent UN emissions gap report states, “More individuals need to demand stronger action from their governments. More cities need to lead the way with innovative emissions-reducing policies. More countries need to make their climate pledges more ambitious.” However, for this to successfully occur, I think there needs to be more interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists, engineers, and economists to find the most effective solutions. Whether or not this can be done in time remains to be seen.

What are some steps people can take (on the local and personal level) to mitigate their negative impact on the environment? ones they might not already be aware of

Day-to-day activities include but are not limited to purchasing local products, choosing greener modes of transportation, reducing waste, and using energy efficient products. If you are unfamiliar with what you can do on a personal level, check out the recently launched UN Facebook Messenger-powered Actnow.bot for different actions you can take.

In addition to making daily lifestyle changes, there are a number of financial incentives/rebates to implement energy efficient upgrades to your home. The following government database is a great place to learn about how you can do this:
http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/corporate/statistics/neud/dpa/policy_e/programs.cfm?attr=0 (I used the following search parameters, but play around with it depending on your needs: Location: British Columbia; Source: ALL; Sector: Residential; Program Types: Financial Incentive,Rebate)
 If you want to take it even further with ideas or initiatives you want to implement in your community or business, there are government grants to support those as well! Check out the following link for more details: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-funding.html

Change can start with just one person – are you doing your part as a global citizen to help?