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Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

Run experiments. Read papers. Analyze data. Grade papers. Create meeting slides. Attend meetings. Submit revisions. Run more experiments. Read more papers. The long list of graduate school responsibilities makes it difficult for students to justify making time for extracurricular activities. Getting involved as a graduate student, though, provides opportunities to socialize and network with your institution’s community as well as teach you valuable lessons in leadership and teamwork. We also have flexibility in our schedule to pursue our interests, from athletics to activism.

For Omar Gowayed, a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Chemistry at New York University, participating in an extracurricular activity on campus has provided him with a sense of purpose that has kept him motivated as a scientist. I spoke to him about his involvement on campus with We Are the New Farmers, a vertical farming team that formed at NYU last year. Prior to joining NYU, Omar was heavily involved in the Organization of Arab Students and Texnikoi as an undergraduate student at Ohio State, and also ran a small travel company called Oyster World. Working with the farm, however, has allowed Omar to turn work into play by using his skills as a scientist outside of the lab. Omar and I talked about the project’s progress and how his involvement has improved his graduate career.

IP: How did you get involved with We Are the New Farmers?
OG: In the first week of my graduate career, a fellow graduate student named Jonas Günther approached me and another friend to help him set up the vertical farming project. We started off by applying for a prototyping fund for $500 and developed a desktop farm to grow arugula as if it were grown in Middle Eastern conditions.

IP: How has the project grown since then?
OG: After the success of that project, we applied for the next round of funding and received $2,000 to build a vertical farm inside of a refrigerator in which we grew a variety of plants: arugula, kale, bok choy, basil, mint, parsley, lettuce. With the success of these two projects, we applied for a Green Grant from the Office of Sustainability at NYU for ~$20,000 and used that money to build an aquaponics vertical farm that uses the waste from tilapia to grow delicious tomatoes, kale, shiso, mustard greens, strawberries, basil, parsley, spirulina (an edible algae), and more! We are now branching this farm into two areas: an entrepreneurial enterprise/farm, and an educational/interactive course through NYU’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program.  

IP: Many students stray from participating in extracurricular activities because of the time it takes away from their research. How do you manage your time?
I manage my time by weaving in my extracurriculars with my down time. I do this by tracking all of my necessary work through my calendar (even my time allocated to studying). If I don't adhere to my scheduled slots, I move them to another time. This ensures that I am using my time to its fullest instead of procrastinating or zoning out — which I still do, but nowhere near as often. Finally, at the risk of sounding like one of those annoying motivational posters, I tend to focus on working productively rather than constantly. If I find myself making too many mistakes while experimenting, I'll do another task. I find that these breaks allow me to recalibrate and get more done in less time.

IP: What lessons have you learned from your involvement as a graduate student? Do you think participation in these helped you develop professionally?
The main lesson that I learned is the importance of combining my desire to be an active member of my community with my sciences. These skills have given me project design experience, team building experiences, as well as just exposed me to a network of people that have helped me develop professionally. I honestly don’t think I can quantify how much this has helped. However, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am in my graduate program today if I did not participate in these activities. They were not only fun, but I learned a lot!

[Photo provided by Omar Gowayed (pictured second from the left)]

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