Having attended a public high school, Stephen Jensen went on the study at Harvard University. Stephen is a true example of when hard work and perseverance combined, can enable you to achieve goals and accomplishments which you have set yourself. It is important to note that setting goals in life is not enough for you to meet them. It is in the dedication and determination which you put which converts your goals into existence. Stephen's desire to study at an elite university had propelled him to achieve spectacular progress. In this interview, he discusses his journey to Harvard University and his advice to younger students.
Stephen's Website, Pocket Scholar. Aimed to make science available for everyone and anyone.
1 | Where did your passion for the sciences originate from and how did this influence the course you wanted to do at Harvard?
Taking a step back first, I wanted to tell you a little more about my schooling before I got to Harvard for graduate school because I think that it tells a compelling story of how hard work and determination can get you far in life.
I went to a public high school in Portland, Maine and was in honors classes but was a B+ student. Certainly not bad, but this would not cut it for any elite school. I applied to a variety of colleges and I was waitlisted at my top choices. I was accepted to Merrimack College, which is a small liberal arts college of 1,500 students with a very generous financial aid package. The small class size created a very nurturing environment for me and I really excelled- with a lot of hard work and determination I became a straight A student. I made the decision that I really wanted to do undergraduate research at an elite university and so I applied to transfer after my freshman year. I was rejected but after trying my second year, I was accepted to Tufts University. This taught me for college admissions that transferring is an excellent option if something isn’t a good fit and that perseverance can pay off.
Tufts has a fantastic graduate program in the sciences but is primarily focused on undergraduates. This was ideal for me. I joined a small research group in the chemistry department that only had two graduate students with the professor who started the same year as I did. This gave me a really good opportunity to closely work on research projects that really mattered for the legacy of the group. With some luck and a lot of hard work, I was published 5 times as an undergrad, twice as a first author.
My first article showed, for example, that the same molecule that makes up Styrofoam cups can liquefy the first layer of gold atoms at sub zero temperatures. This is crazy when you think about gold being a liquid at such a cold temperature and we could actually see the liquification occur with this microscope that can see the atoms moving around. To me, that was pretty much the most amazing thing I’d ever seen so I knew then that I really wanted to pursue a PhD in chemistry.
2 | Apart from Harvard University being a very prestigious and well-known university globally, why did you choose to apply to Harvard?
After working on some really exciting projects at Tufts, our group gave a presentation for someone at Harvard who would be my future PhD advisor. She was impressed enough that she encouraged me to apply when I was in my senior year of college. At the time, I also applied to 12 other schools so it was a tough choice for me but ultimately Harvard was the choice that I made because I already had a great connection with a professor at the university and the program also allowed students to do rotations with several groups before making a decision to join a group. For a PhD, once you join a group it is for 5 years so it is important to find a good match and I definitely found the right one for myself.
3 | For top universities such as Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford which have a tough application process, how did you go about knowing how to best approach this application process and what steps did you take in order to achieve a spot at Harvard?
It is important to remember that admissions committees read thousands of essays so it is important to be as succinct as possible while at the same time crafting an interesting story that displays your talents and will make you stand out among other applicants. The actual contents of the story aren’t as important as what they tell about you- i.e. your level of passion, dedication or leadership.
4 | What would be your advice for students who are in the process of applying to universities such as Harvard and those especially, who want to study a science-related course?
The specifics of my advice might be different for undergraduate versus graduate students. For undergraduate, I’d suggest that students should get involved with some activity or project that really stands out and captures their personality. When I was applying for undergraduate schools, I think that was the thing that I was missing but when I applied for graduate programs and had a strong research background, it really stood out to the admissions committees. These kind of projects are easier today than ever with the availability of raspberry pis, 3d printing or web development. For graduate school, it is important to do research as an undergrad.
5 | What did you enjoy the most about your experience at Harvard?
Another important thing to look at when applying to colleges is how the culture feels. There were other universities that I visited where it seemed like the culture was exclusively work focused and I wanted a more well-rounded experience. Harvard has excellent on campus groups, and many public lectures that were fascinating. I remember one lecture series that was focused on the science of cooking where they had famous chefs come every week for two months and give lectures on their craft. These lectures were free and open to the public. Also Harvard had fantastic interdisciplinary programs outside of my degree. One that I was a part of was a program that brought scientists, engineers and policy majors together to learn about climate science and policy.
6 | If you were to turn back time, what do you wish you had known before starting your experience at Harvard?
One thing that all students should keep in mind is that there is life outside academia. Any on campus activity or club you join may form a basis for your future career because becoming a professor is not the only thing that you can do with your life. For me, I stumbled across web app development as a way to keep track of my scientific data and now I am making an entire website called Pocket Scholar that is dedicated to teaching scientific education to undergraduates. This has also lead me to work on projects in healthcare and clean energy and had I not been open to learning outside of my area of study, this would not have been possible. I think that for many areas of life, the most exciting projects are at the intersection of two fields that no one has thought about before. That’s where the real magic happens.