Two summers ago, ten other students and I met outside of the Sarah Tolbert Laboratory at UCLA. We quickly found companionship in our matching baffled expressions as Professor Tolbert explained the steps of building a photolithographic motherboard. As the days progressed, we bonded over our love for caffeine and soon formed friendships that would last long after our research ended.
The bulk of our time there would be spent working on a research project. On the first day, my group mates and I sat impatiently as we waited to be assigned our research topics. When it was finally our turn to get a topic, the teacher looked down at the piece of paper she was holding, and told us that we had to build a nanofabricated supercapacitor. My group mates and I let out a sigh of relief. We had notes on this, we were completely prepared. But our contentment quickly turned into panic when our teacher told us, “No notes. No Internet. No books. Just your minds.”
Our safety net was suddenly gone. In front of us were two metal plates, activated carbon, two electrodes, and a bunch of wires. Somehow, with these random objects, we had to find a way to create graphene and make a red LED light turn on.
When our class ended, we rushed to Pete’s coffee, and began to discuss our plan of action. But considering our limited knowledge on the subject, we got nowhere. Each one of our suggestions was either impossible with the limited materials that we had, or broke a fundamental law of physics. Hours passed. And then days. Still nothing. We watched the other groups in envy as all of their questions were answered with a quick Google search. We spent sleepless nights rearranging our supplies in every way imaginable, but still nothing.
We were feeling defeated. In class the next day, I watched our professor work through a differential equation on the whiteboard. He told us that everything is related to change. The equation’s existence is determined by the lens with which you chose to look at it. I then realized my group mates and I were refusing to shift our paradigm—we were looking at our problem with blinders on. Instead of trying to tackle the problem from the physics angle, we actually had to tackle it from a chemistry angle. Suddenly, what we had to do became clear to us—by placing the electrodes into a solution of inorganic salts, it might actually become graphene. Now, we had all of the materials necessary to successfully carry out our project to completion.
Change is inevitable. But much like a differential equation, how we relate ourselves to various changes shapes our very existence. You can dismiss unprecedented situations as obstacles you will never overcome, or you can choose to take advantage of the unique opportunity to reimagine things. At one point, my group and I thought we were going to fail out of the program, but the nature of the obstacles we were facing was determined by the lens which we chose to look at it. In life, many things are going to seem impossible and challenging, but sometimes a simple perspective shift is the key that reveals the pathway to the solution.