Holland Smith now lives in Oregon. After receiving his MA in Slavic, he ended up getting three more degrees from Berkeley: – a B.S. with Honors in Engineering Physics (2009), and a M.S (2011) and Ph.D (2013) in Materials Science and Engineering with a minor in Solid State Physics. He writes:
After earning my M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literature, I worked as a freelance programmer in Silicon Valley. During this time I became strongly interested in alternative energy, both as an issue affecting our generation, and as an important group of engineering challenges. Despite Tolstoy’s asseverations about the lack of attendant moral progress accompanying technological progress, I decided in 2008 to come back to Berkeley to get a B.S. in Engineering Physics.
One of the best things about coming back was that I was able to teach Russian again for a semester. The department graciously offered me the opportunity, plus an office and access to the Slavic Library, which made me feel nicely “at home” as I transitioned to a new educational path. After a semester teaching, I got a job as an undergraduate researcher in the Solar Energy Materials Research Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I quickly found that I loved applied research. It offers a nice balance of technical and analytical challenges with enough physical tasks to ensure that I do not sit in front a computer all day. In fact, I get to move around and interact with people, which beats most programming jobs I’ve had! I am now in a PhD program at Berkeley in Materials Science and Engineering, finishing in 2013.
In my graduate school admission essay, I wrote about the similarities between studying physics and Russian. Both are systematic to a point, but so much of what makes them fun are exploring the places where the rules seem to bend or break. Learning Russian required the development of patience, and perseverance, especially when transitioning from the rapid progress of early study to the long, multi-year intermediate plateau of vocabulary acquisition in which nothing seems to be fully comprehensible quite yet. My experience learning Russian gave me hope as I slogged along a similar plateau in math and physics that one day, everything I was studying would gel and make some sort of useful sense.
These days I am interested in materials research for energy applications, as well as computing and the physics of information. Though it seems far from what I do now, I remember my background in Slavic Languages and the time I spent in Moscow very fondly. Graduate School (the first time around) was a formative time, and the skills I honed and developed then have served me well, playing an integral role in what I do today.