A Bridge Between Students
Halley Le ’25 is a Bennington student from Vietnam, studying Chemistry. During Fall 2022, she worked as the On-Campus Reporter in the Bennington College Office of Communications and Marketing, and wrote a number of stories covering the science scene at Bennington.
What did you want to study at Bennington when you first arrived? How has your Plan changed since then?
When I first started my undergraduate journey, I knew I wanted to study Chemistry. I am fascinated by the interactions of the molecular world. While the focus of my Plan hasn’t changed since, my understanding of Chemistry topics have certainly evolved, and the scope of my interests has narrowed.
I left high school with a strong background in Chemistry and was previously introduced to concepts like electron configurations, valence bonding, orbitals, and so on, but I have always understood them as actual, discoverable phenomenons in the physical world. In my first term, I discovered that these concepts are only hypothetical models that scientists derive to explain measurable occurrences in nature. Ever since our Chemistry faculty member John Bullock revealed to us that the concept of hybridization is “made up,” I have become even more curious and eager to learn the next theories he teaches. Every time I come to class, I expect to have my understanding of the world challenged and shaken.
When I started my freshman year, I thought of my Plan as centering on Chemistry: I want to be able to address the challenges in the modern world using Chemistry. As it turns out, Chemistry is a vague interest, encompassing a multitude of subdisciplines. So I used the academic freedom at Bennington to dabble around different STEM topics, ranging from core chemistry topics, to transition metals, to genome, to cell biology. From there I was able to narrow in on my interests! Right now, I am curious about the science of materials, metals, catalysts, and their applications in solar energy conversions and nanotechnology.
Between Field Work Term, summer jobs, and on-campus positions, what kinds of work experiences have you had while at Bennington? What have been your favorite discoveries?
I completed my most recent Field Work Term in summer 2022 at Purdue University, where I assisted with a graduate research project in Civil and Environmental Engineering. I applied to this research project because I was interested in polymeric materials at the time. Over 10 weeks, I investigated how plumbing components made from plastic will behave when they are exposed to petroleum and petroleum-related contaminants. In the lab, I imitated the contamination of plumbing components and collected data on the amount of contaminants left in these plumbing materials after consecutive periods of decontamination. The findings will help public health officials address hydrocarbon contamination incidents that impact a vast population in the US.
I was surprised to find out how well my classroom experiences prepared me for a real, professional research experience. When I first joined the lab in Purdue, the professor/principal investigator wanted to give me a challenge. He tasked me with finding a way to produce the solution we need from a standard of unknown concentration and instrument in the lab, which has a limited range of measurement. I instantly recalled how John guided me through similar tasks at Bennington, and although I had only started at Purdue’s engineering lab for a few days, I was able to map out what I needed to do and successfully completed the task. I felt like a fish in water.
My other favorite discovery involves how interdisciplinary I can be at Bennington, and how being versatile has helped me in every work environment. As a Chemistry and STEM-focused student, my profile has still been extremely diverse: I dabble in writing and photography, took classes in environmental politics and cultures, and entertain myself by picking up musical instruments. In my internship at Purdue, when I drafted my research paper, I surprised both of my mentors with my strong writing skills! When I prepared pictures of our experiment materials—which would be included in many technical reports and research presentations, with a few lighting and contrast skills, I produced the highest quality pictures under the horrible fluorescent light in the lab. My mentors were impressed and happy about my diverse skill sets.
Over this school year, I have worked as the On Campus Reporter for Bennington’s Communications department. I cover campus events, faculty news, and student projects for the College’s Newsroom and other digital communications. Bennington is a robust community of scholars, scientists, artists, musicians, environmentalists, activists, and socially engaged individuals—who are always brimming with ideas and putting their hearts into executing their visions. I have found the most engaging stories from casual conversations with my classmates or teachers. I like to think of myself as the bridge between students and the College, and it has truly been a pleasure to write about students from a student’s perspective and, in a way, “show off” the stories from the people I love so much to the greater Bennington audience.
When I walked out of the research scene and worked as the campus reporter, with my background, I was able to cover many STEM stories and represent research news in a friendly and accessible manner. The Science and Mathematics community in Bennington is often perceived as secluded, and my training in science, along with my writing skills, have allowed me to increase representations of STEM students on campus. Whether I am working in a lab or writing for the College, my interdisciplinary education provides me with the skills to tackle any challenges!
Why is communication (and writing!) an important contribution to the overall STEM field?
Clear, concise, and engaging communication is integral to science and engineering. Good communication allows us to access science, engage with science, be inspired by science, and benefit from science.
For example, it would be easier to prevent diseases if people understood the mechanism of viral infection. In addition, as a STEM student, I enjoy what I learn more if the concepts are delivered to me in a captivating manner. Many times I have walked into John’s office beaming with excitement, inspired by the readings he assigned! As an aspiring researcher, it is important for me to grow capable in communication and writing, so I can deliver my ideas and findings to colleagues, as well as to a general audience. Writing for the College has helped me improve in this area, and I look forward to growing more in my undergraduate years.
Where do you hope your career takes you in the future?
Right now, I am excited by a career in research, and I will find out where it takes me. I might be able to work in academia, in the industry, or in national labs… the possibilities are endless! Next summer, I hope to dive into one of my other research interests. This could be research in materials characterization and synthesis, catalysis study, or solar energy conversion. I am open to exploring, and I can’t wait to see where the road takes me