Path to PI

April 29, 2021
News & UpdatesSarah Wegwerth
Gif animation of the quote "Not all who wander are lost." -J.R.R. Tolkien. the images has a mountain range background with birds in the sky to the right and a orange sun to the left.

If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you “a teacher!” This vision evolved over the years to the point where I found myself in graduate school with the ultimate goal of being a college professor at a primarily undergraduate institution. It seemed like the perfect balance for me between having an intellectually stimulating career along with the rewarding experiences that come with teaching.

Then, the time finally came to write my dissertation and graduate. This step also translates to a new reality: time to find a job. At this point I was leery of the tenure track but arguably the bigger problem was I had NO interest in running a research lab. I looked at and considered a few applications to undergraduate institutions but what stopped me dead in my tracks every time was the research plan. I also knew deep down inside there had to be a better way to teach, but with all the demands of the tenure track it was unlikely that I’d be able to dedicate as much time to new instructional methods.

One day I remember talking with one of my lab mates and confessing to him that I had always told myself “I never want to work for a company, I always want to be in academia.” His response was so eye opening, “Yeah, you should never confine yourself like that and narrow your options.”

I was also part of a women’s group of chemists in graduate school and one of the speakers who came to talk about her non-traditional career shared the inspirational quote that “Not all who wander are lost.” And I really took that to heart and found myself with a new vision for a stimulating and rewarding career by wandering beyond the borders of traditional academia.

Leaving the well laid out and trodden path of tenure track has taken me on one of the most exciting and crazy adventures of my life! And I have loved every last minute of it.

This story takes a twist though, and the irony is not lost on me. I left academia largely in part because I didn’t want to run a research lab, but recently I applied to be the Principal Investigator (P.I.) on are search grant. What changed? Three things.

--One, I was honest with myself and what my true passions were, which is working with students and helping them learn chemistry and not looking at recent articles in top chemistry journals.

--Two, I found a job where I feel well supported and cared for by my employer.

--Three, I saw a definite unfilled need that many would look at and say “The idea is not possible” and walk away. Oh, how I love a challenge!(As a synthetic organic chemist my target molecule in graduate school was the theoretical compound, cyclacene, that may be near impossible to make for stability reasons.)


capture of our concept video showing in the upper right a chemical equation for CO2 and on the right a chat bubble displaying what the Kasi system could read to the user with step by step instructions on how to make CO2. Below the diagram and chat bubble and pair of hands uses Kasi's atoms pieces, featuring extruded letters and braille, to make CO2.
IC Particle diagram concept

If you follow Alchemie, chances are you have heard about Kasi and how it is envisioned to transform how Blind/Visually Impaired (BVI) student can participate during in-class active learning lessons with their peers. This project has been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Kasi has been an amazingly rewarding project for everyone involved but it’s just the beginning.

What I realized is that BVI students do not have an equal opportunity to explore static diagrams used as instructional material, like presented in textbooks or in instructional PowerPoints. The way Kasi is currently designed it cannot fill this void. When the IES opened up requests for funding specifically targeting special education, our CEO Julia asked if I wanted to take the lead on a new project as the PI. I took a deep breath, evaluated my new career vision and said let’s do this!


You know what, WE GOT THE GRANT! Work starts next week and I’m very pumped to dive in. Stay tuned :) 

Screenshot of sarah sharing flowers with a congratulations card on her kitchen table. the post reads "When you're boss calls you to check your email it's either really good news or really bad news. Yesterday it was really good. I never thought I'd say this, especially after leaving academia...I'm a PI on a ferally funded grant!! This is a seriously big deal for me. And I have the best boss and coworkers ever! So excited to get started."
Co- Author