Grad Student Q&A: Dali Davis

By Wendy Plump
Monday, Feb. 22, 2021

Of all the skills essential for graduate school, self-confidence is the most illusory: difficult to teach; an advantage if you have it; a drawback if you don’t. Dali Davis, a second-year graduate student, has used a finely honed sense of self to guide her switch from one lab to another this year. She says it’s the same self-confidence that led her to drop pre-med as an undergrad at the University of West Georgia in pursuit of a chemistry degree. Here, Davis discusses her experience as a graduate student at the Department of Chemistry and new member of the Groves lab. 

WHY PRINCETON CHEMISTRY?

My top four schools were University of Michigan, UC Irvine, Emory, and Princeton. When I visited here, I was just amazed at the different kinds of chemistry that were going on: biochemistry, bioinorganic, methodology. That was just so new to me and I loved it. I also loved the facilities and the building. My undergrad was very small – chemistry was, like, a single floor in a building. So to come here and experience the facilities was intense. Also, the collaborations. I could tell that everyone was so friendly with each other in the different labs, and that was really important to me. 

Dali Davis, a second-year graduate student in the Groves Lab, in sunnier weather.
Dali Davis, a second-year graduate student in the Groves Lab, in sunnier weather.
Photo courtesy of Dali Davis.

WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF GRAD SCHOOL?

A lot of it is what I expected because my undergrad professors did a good job of not sugarcoating the experience. They were very much like, ‘Your first two years are probably going to be your hardest years and here’s why.’ Also, moving to a completely different place was hard. I’m from Georgia, so things like getting used to the different grocery stores, the weather, the department .... There were small things that were initially very stressful, but nothing that blindsided me. 

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SWITCH LABS?

I realized sometime late in my first year that I wanted to do more environmentally related work. I thought, this is my time to find a project that I want to work on related to what I want to do in the future. And I can do that because I’m in grad school. The lab I was in was more methodology. Their application is more for medicinal chemistry, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I saw a different route for my Ph.D. Grad school is five years of your life and it’s very hard, and so you want to do things that matter to you. This is my Ph.D., and in five years no one else’s name is going to be on that diploma. 

WAS IT DIFFICULT TO MAKE THE LEAP?

I have five sisters and I’m the second-oldest, so maybe it’s just taking the initiative and leading myself in the right direction. It’s just always worked out that way. When I was an undergrad and pursuing the pre-med route, it was a big decision then, too – switching to chemistry and working towards graduate school. Then I was like, I’m going to do what makes me happy. This was the same mentality. I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard or stressful, but I have zero regrets about my decision. 

WHAT CRITERIA DID YOU USE TO FIND A NEW LAB?

Mostly, it was the research. I didn’t necessarily have a certain idea of what I wanted to work on. I just knew it needed to be environmentally related. I had to search around for other research that was happening. I contacted several different professors to see what they were working on. I found (Professor of Geosciences) Satish Myneni and I talked to him. That’s also when I got in contact with Jay Groves, (who holds the Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry). Apparently, in the past, Jay and Satish had talked about a potential collaboration. So that was how I got the switch going. I have Jay in chemistry, but I still have the environmental aspect in the collaboration with geosciences. So now Jay is my P.I. and we’re collaborating with Satish and everything worked out phenomenally.

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH ….

I literally have only been at it for about a week. But the general project outline is looking at how naturally chlorinated organic molecules, organochlorides, are formed. Is there an enzyme, and from what organism? Is it being secreted, is it like the organism’s eating the compound, is it a metabolite? How is this compound being formed and then what is its fate in the environment? A lot of people think that chlorinated molecules are only from anthropogenic activities, and that’s just not the case. Nature makes chlorinated molecules and it’s important to know whether they are toxic to people or other animals and what happens to them. That’s where the environmental aspect comes into it: these molecules are in our soils. What are they doing there?

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU NOW?

I’m happy when I get up in the morning and I can go into the lab and learn new techniques. A lot of things are different because I haven’t really worked with cells before, or media. So one thing that motivates me is learning all these new skills. Also, I like just being in the lab. In undergrad, that was a big reason I wanted to go into grad school – I loved going to the lab. It was my hobby, my stress relief. Just being able to transfer that enthusiasm over to graduate school is 100% worth it. I want to be doing this. 

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS THAT YOU DIDN’T ANTICIPATE?

One thing is just being confident in your decisions. In your day-to-day, you have to be sure of yourself and the decisions you’re making because this is really a time to be thinking about your future. All your choices matter. Just make sure that whatever you decide to do, you’re mentally in it 100% and your heart is in it, as well. 

HOW CAN STUDENTS GET THE MOST OUT OF PRINCETON?

Be proactive. Have a schedule. And be open to different ideas and new experiences. All of those things can help you both in your research, and as a person. People might say, hey, do you want to take a look at this NMR, or this reaction? Just go for it. Also, schedule your time and use it wisely. That’s one of the biggest killers for people of all age groups. I like to organize. It’s a hobby of mine. Write things out in a planner, and schedule your day. Maximize your time.