Grad Student Q&A: Sean Huth

By Wendy Plump
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021

Chemistry was Sean Huth's least favorite subject in high school. He had to be talked into staying with it by an Australian teacher in his hometown of Schwetzingen, Germany. Growing up the son of a military father and Bavarian mother who taught alpine skiing, he was fluent in German, went skiing a lot, and planned on a business degree. But a decision during college to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison led to an Intro to Organic course, and he was hooked from then on. Now, Huth is a first-year graduate student in chemistry and a member of the MacMillan Lab. Here, he talks about academic life under the pandemic.

SO, YOU DIDN'T START OUT LOVING CHEMISTRY?
I don’t think General Chemistry courses are the best way to introduce chemistry to people. It makes the subject look very monotonous, and that’s the impression a lot of people get. Even now when I say I have a chemistry degree they say, oh God, I hated chemistry. And I think that’s because we still haven’t figured out how to elevate the really cool parts. Chemistry is the thing that takes a long time to get to the good stuff.

WHAT IS “THE GOOD STUFF”?
Moving towards applications, I think. It’s helpful to sort of equate what you’re learning with real life. I remember in Germany, for example, they did a whole section on the Haber Process and how it works, and I thought, hey, you can solve real problems using this stuff. That to me is the wow factor.

Sean Huth, first-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.
Sean Huth, first-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.
Photo courtesy of Sean Huth

DID THE PANDEMIC IMPACT YOUR GRAD SCHOOL DECISION?
I actually never visited Princeton first. The weekend I was supposed to visit was when they shut down. That was unlucky, I guess. That being said, myself and another person from Madison both went to the virtual weekend and both ended up coming to Princeton, which I think really speaks to the ability of the people in the department. I felt people were genuinely satisfied and engaged and inspired by the work they do. Also, just the willingness of people to talk to me. I reached out to so many people and bothered them, and I never got anything but an enthusiastic response. 

WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS STARTING GRAD SCHOOL DURING COVID? 
For me, it was important to take a step back and realize how lucky I am even to be going into a graduate program. I had so many friends from undergrad who couldn’t find jobs or had to sit and wait for something. I adopted an attitude of gratitude where I thought, if I get to show up to a lab and work in a lab and interact with people in a safe manner, there’s not much more I can ask for. 

WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU RUN INTO?
Obviously, there were a lot of struggles integration-wise socially, and that’s still kind of the toughest part. It was a bigger blow to me to not integrate socially immediately than it was to not to have my college graduation. I’m fortunate because I’m in a pretty big lab, we have 40 people, and we pride ourselves on being pretty approachable. Generally, you make do. You do Zoom social events. When it was warmer, we had a lot of outdoor get-togethers where we were able to be distanced. And I’ll give credit – I think our cohort has done a pretty good job. We’ve been using different social media channels to get to know each other. I think you make the best of it and try to ride it out with the end goal in mind: I will eventually meet these people.

WAS IT HARD TO CHOOSE A P.I. UNDER RESTRICTED CONDITIONS?
I knew I wanted to work at an interface of organic, maybe organic and biology or organic and materials. For me personally the whole COVID pandemic too pushed me to say, wow, there’s just so much opportunity on the front of biology and I would love to work in a place where I can do both. I wasn’t even supposed to talk to Dave but he put himself in the chemical biology slot because he was recruiting for this new sector of his lab, and I was just hooked by it. 

HOW SHOULD A PROSPECTIVE STUDENT CHOOSE A P.I.?
The biggest thing you can do as a prospective is just to bother as many people as you can. There are parts of grad school that are very challenging, and none of that was a surprise because the people I talked to had been very open about it. For example they said, we have a lot of meetings in our group and they gave the pros and cons of that. That to me was very helpful. But even so, you’re taking a gamble. At the end of the day, the only way to know what it’s like is to work in the lab. You want to work somewhere where you’re going to get along with the people, where you share some of the philosophies of your P.I., and where the research is something that interests you. It’s hard to narrow it down more than that. 

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH ….
I dove headfirst into biology. I’m working on one of the most biological projects in the lab now. I don’t think I could be more excited about it because I have awesome co-workers. I work with Beryl Li. She’s a great mentor and I’ve definitely learned a lot. I’m working on something called the Halo Tag project, which is where we’re genetically localizing a proximity-labeling platform to a specific protein. It’s a general strategy but there are many, many applications.

ARE YOU ENJOYING THE MACMILLAN LAB?
Dave was what I was looking for in a P.I. I was prepared to go full throttle in graduate school. Dave is someone who expects a lot from his people, but I think he also commits to you as hard as you commit to him. He’s very hands-on for the size of his lab, which I think is great, and he knows everything that’s going on in it. You present every week. That’s something that took some getting used to, but I actually really appreciate it now because something will come up where you could have envisioned a whole month wasted if someone hadn’t caught what you’re doing earlier. In Dave’s lab, there’s enough guidance and honest feedback, so it’s pretty difficult to work yourself into a corner.

HOBBIES, PASTIMES?
One hobby I picked up in the past semester has been chess. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with “The Queen’s Gambit” on NetFlix, but it’s one of my favorite shows of all time and it set off this chess movement that I’ve really gotten into. I learned as a kid but never really got it into it. Lately, I’ve realized that despite being over 1,000 years old there’s still so many things that are not yet known about chess. That really fascinated me. 

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU LOOK FORWARD TO ONCE COVID PASSES?
I don’t know if there’s any one thing, but there’s one theme, which is just being around people in-person. I’ve really learned to value that and become actually aware of the difference between having a Zoom conversation versus face-to-face. I think I’ve found that I’m more extroverted than I thought I was. As for travel, if I could pick one trip, it would probably be skiing. It’s something my family did a lot. The other big thing is that the MacMillan Lab tends to do ski trips too, so that’s something I’m really looking forward to.