Always an Anteater

Courtesy of Archana Venugopal

Courtesy of Archana Venugopal

When seeing professors teach, host office hours and administer exams, it is difficult to imagine that they all went through the same experiences as college undergraduates, like us. Some of us even view our professors as intimidating and unsympathetic to our busy, hectic student lives. Yet, all of our professors have experienced many of the struggles we face. One professor in particular has even experienced these difficulties at our very own university in Irvine.

Professor Vy Dong is a physical sciences professor at UCI who teaches chemistry and is the head of a research laboratory at UCI. She loves chemistry, has traveled all over the world giving lectures and really enjoys guiding her students through the process of research, like many professors at UCI. The one real difference between Dong and the other professors is that she spent her undergraduate years at UCI.

Dong is a UC Irvine alumna who attended the school from 1994 to 1998. After that, she completed her PhD at Caltech and her postdoctoral studies in Berkeley. She then started her independent academic career in Toronto, where she was a professor for six years before her research team moved to UCI.

“I’ve traveled to a lot of departments over the last six years and Irvine is an amazing place,” Dong said. “It’s a really great department. The colleagues are friendly, collegial, doing top-notch science. We have amazing facilities, and we have really great students so it was really an ideal place for me to come back to.”

In her undergraduate years in Irvine, Dong studied chemistry and was part of a research team under Larry Overman.

“I had a really great experience. As an undergraduate, I got involved with research early on, in my junior year, and so I had a chance to be a part of a research team at Irvine and it helped me find a group of people I could interact with, because it’s a pretty big university,” Dong said. “So it was nice to have a professor and graduate students I got to know well, so that was a good experience.”

Dong’s experiences with research as well as her classes at Irvine shaped her future goals of becoming a professor and a researcher.

“It was actually from my experience here at Irvine. I thought my professors looked like they really enjoy what they’re doing, it seemed like a pretty amazing job to have because you can teach and also do research and live at a nice place,” Dong said.

As for the differences in her experiences at UCI as an undergrad and a professor, there are many things that make this career so much more different than her career as a student. For example, her office in Natural Sciences didn’t exist when she was a student. New professors were hired as well, so not all of the professors she works with have taught her in the past.

“It probably would have hit me more if I was back in the same lab I was in as an undergraduate, but this building didn’t even exist 10 years ago. It’s still Irvine, this beautiful, peaceful campus with different students, but I guess for me, the challenges are different now so it makes it really different,” Dong said.

However, she does still run into her old professors and even has the opportunity to socialize with them.

“Sometimes I go to the houses of professors I used to know and have barbeques and drink with them,” Dong said.

Her life as a student has also helped her relate better to her students and think about being a professor.

“I remember as a student being really scared of professors and being nervous around them and I guess the way to overcome your fear is to become one of them,”  Dong said.

“It seems like a long time ago but if I think back, it’s definitely a completely different experience being a student here versus being a professor. It’s really awesome to be back because I can remember and relate to the students I’m teaching,” Dong said. “As a student, I remember being extremely stressed about exams and midterms and assignments and being really uncertain about the future because you’re trying to balance all of these things. Now that I’m on the other side of things, there are a different set of challenges now and in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m in a position to help mentor the students.”

Yet, being a faculty member at UCI has not stopped Dong from continuing to learn as well, since she feels like she has learned more about the material as a professor than as a student. She has learned much more than just the subject of chemistry as a professor as well.

“One thing that I didn’t realize as a student, and I’ll be completely open about this, is that I saw my professors and I thought, ‘What a sweet job,’ you teach three hours a week and I was thinking ‘What do they do for the rest of the week?’ I thought that it sounded like a good job because you have so much free time, but now that I’m on the other side of things, you have this whole other full-time thing and I’m really amazed at how my colleagues balanced all of these things,” Dong said.

As for advice to the undergraduates here about dealing with professors, Dong said, “Professors are basically just people who are really passionate about their subject matter. When you do have a professor that inspires you, don’t be afraid to come and chat with them and get more insights. That’s the really nice thing about being part of the university.”